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Making Sense Of Our Daily Struggle

| 02.02.2017 |

Life is a struggle to succeed, but it is also a struggle to determine what success is. We all want what we deserve, and we often build our sense of self-worth on our compensation in life. We want the good and reject the bad, and we believe we "deserve" the former but never the latter.


Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay on “Compensation,” turns this one-sided belief on its head. In this important but often overlooked essay, he argues that failure and loss allow us to fully understand, contextualize, and appreciate life. Too often, we obsess over material gain while we ignore life itself.


Near the end of his essay, Emerson discusses trade: “Experienced men of the world know very well that it is best to pay scot and lot as they go along, and that a man often pays dear for a small frugality. The borrower runs in his own debt. Has a man gained any thing who has received a hundred favors and rendered none? Has he gained by borrowing, through indolence or cunning, his neighbour's wares, or horses, or money?”


The “debt” created between two people is often deeper than the financial amount. There is a social relationship affected by the perceived value of each individual involved: “There arises on the deed the instant acknowledgment of benefit on the one part, and of debt on the other; that is, of superiority and inferiority. The transaction remains in the memory of himself and his neighbour; and every new transaction alters, according to its nature, their relation to each other. He may soon come to see that he had better have broken his own bones than to have ridden in his neighbour's coach, and that 'the highest price he can pay for a thing is to ask for it.'”


It is important to pay debts on time and to treat others fairly. Although you might monetarily benefit by cheating others, your social value will decrease: “A wise man will extend this lesson to all parts of life, and know that it is the part of prudence to face every claimant, and pay every just demand on your time, your talents, or your heart. Always pay; for, first or last, you must pay your entire debt. Persons and events may stand for a time between you and justice, but it is only a postponement. You must pay at last your own debt. If you are wise, you will dread a prosperity which only loads you with more.”


Justice is not based on some grand understanding of what you “deserve” but on actual agreements made between two individuals and then upholding them. You cannot take from others or cheat others based on some theory that you must be greater than your current status. Ultimately, “social justice” is not justice but the opposite, the reverse of contractual justice. You work, you borrow, and you pay your debts, and all other considerations are nil.


To believe that life is about receiving the most and giving the least is the opposite of living. Instead, a life's value is not based on any amount of riches: “Benefit is the end of nature. But for every benefit which you receive, a tax is levied. He is great who confers the most benefits. He is base — and that is the one base thing in the universe — to receive favors and render none. In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody. Beware of too much good staying in your hand. It will fast corrupt and worm worms. Pay it away quickly in some sort.”


When it comes to employees, we should seek out those who provide the most good. Paying more or less for someone who does not provide is a loss of value, just as is seeking to gain without paying: “So do you multiply your presence, or spread yourself throughout your estate. But because of the dual constitution of things, in labor as in life there can be no cheating. The thief steals from himself. The swindler swindles himself. For the real price of labor is knowledge and virtue, whereof wealth and credit are signs. These signs, like paper money, may be counterfeited or stolen, but that which they represent, namely, knowledge and virtue, cannot be counterfeited or stolen. These ends of labor cannot be answered but by real exertions of the mind, and in obedience to pure motives. The cheat, the defaulter, the gambler, cannot extort the knowledge of material and moral nature which his honest care and pains yield to the operative. The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power: but they who do not the thing have not the power.”


We are all the laborers, and we all must work and produce. However, that production is social and spiritual, not material. Our production must be in creating a system in which people get what they deserve but are also willing to accept that not everything is good. Pain and suffering are important aspects of life, and they increase our human value instead of diminish it. They are the cost necessary for us to understand what is good.


Emerson continues, “Human labor, through all its forms, from the sharpening of a stake to the construction of a city or an epic, is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe. The absolute balance of Give and Take, the doctrine that every thing has its price, — and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained, and that it is impossible to get any thing without its price, — is not less sublime in the columns of a ledger than in the budgets of states, in the laws of light and darkness, in all the action and reaction of nature.”


To be just requires you to pay your dues. It is not to demand what you did not earn, nor is it to take from others, through taxes, business expenses, or other forms, in order to gain more. Those who make higher demands without producing more are only cheating themselves, and they will never be happy no matter how much they gain.


Just compensation, in Emerson's view, serves as the basis for morality in general. We should not question the negative aspects of our life because they could turn out to be the positives: “The good are befriended even by weakness and defect. As no man had ever a point of pride that was not injurious to him, so no man had ever a defect that was not somewhere made useful to him. The stag in the fable admired his horns and blamed his feet, but when the hunter came, his feet saved him, and afterwards, caught in the thicket, his horns destroyed him.”


Human perspective is flawed, and we often lack the ability to properly measure our worth: “Every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults. As no man thoroughly understands a truth until he has contended against it, so no man has a thorough acquaintance with the hindrances or talents of men, until he has suffered from the one, and seen the triumph of the other over his own want of the same. Has he a defect of temper that unfits him to live in society? Thereby he is driven to entertain himself alone, and acquire habits of self-help; and thus, like the wounded oyster, he mends his shell with pearl.”


If we base our self-worth solely around how much we succeed, then we lack the perspective necessary to succeed. We must understand failure before we can ever learn to overcome it: “Our strength grows out of our weakness. The indignation which arms itself with secret forces does not awaken until we are pricked and stung and sorely assailed. A great man is always willing to be little. Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep. When he is pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill.”


Emerson continues, “Blame is safer than praise. I hate to be defended in a newspaper. As long as all that is said is said against me, I feel a certain assurance of success. But as soon as honeyed words of praise are spoken for me, I feel as one that lies unprotected before his enemies. In general, every evil to which we do not succumb is a benefactor. As the Sandwich Islander believes that the strength and valor of the enemy he kills passes into himself, so we gain the strength of the temptation we resist.”


We must stop thinking in terms of what we “deserve” and instead focus on self-improvement. We must learn from all failures and seek to improve ourselves. We cannot demand outside help: “The same guards which protect us from disaster, defect, and enmity, defend us, if we will, from selfishness and fraud. Bolts and bars are not the best of our institutions, nor is shrewdness in trade a mark of wisdom. Men suffer all their life long, under the foolish superstition that they can be cheated. But it is as impossible for a man to be cheated by any one but himself, as for a thing to be and not to be at the same time.”


To Emerson, there is a spiritual dimension of all things, and those who protest and argue that they are being cheated are defying the natural course of justice: “There is a third silent party to all our bargains. The nature and soul of things takes on itself the guaranty of the fulfilment of every contract, so that honest service cannot come to loss. If you serve an ungrateful master, serve him the more. Put God in your debt. Every stroke shall be repaid. The longer the payment is withholden, the better for you; for compound interest on compound interest is the rate and usage of this exchequer.”


Ultimately, we must learn to properly contextualize our gains and losses. We must become indifferent to our birth status and the fortunes of life if we want to find tranquility: “Thus do all things preach the indifferency of circumstances. The man is all. Every thing has two sides, a good and an evil. Every advantage has its tax. I learn to be content. But the doctrine of compensation is not the doctrine of indifferency. The thoughtless say, on hearing these representations, — What boots it to do well? there is one event to good and evil; if I gain any good, I must pay for it; if I lose any good, I gain some other; all actions are indifferent.”


Instead of making demands upon the government and society, we must seek justice in contracts from our side. What matters is how we treat others, not how they treat us. We should not seek the most gain for ourselves, but only what we deserve. We do not “need” more. We do not “deserve” more.


Life involves pain, but pain is necessary for success. Those who rebel against the natural order of things are those who cannot accept pain and suffering. They often play to the emotions of others, seeking sympathy to radically change laws and unbalance the system. But that is a childish response to life. It is petty, and those who pursue such acts will never find comfort.


Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.