It's important to discern between steadfastness and stubbornness. There are crucial, if subtle, differences between the two. To be steadfast is to be faithful to what we know to be true, without a need to explain or justify that truth, but simply to live it. To be stubborn is to resist views and truths other than our own, to avoid the challenge of growth. Steadfastness brings us closer to life, while stubbornness isolates us.
Walt Whitman is a great example of steadfastness. In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson published an essay called "The Poet," in which he yearned for and called for a new American sensibility that could break the British hold on our young imagination. While America had stopped being a colony of England almost a hundred years before, he rightly claimed that our imagination and language as a people were still obedient and compliant to the English tradition. Emerson's essay swept America.
Eleven years later, upon reading the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1855), Emerson was stunned to find that Walt Whitman was the American poet he'd imagined. He wrote Whitman a now-famous letter (July 21, 1855) in which he praised the young poet:
"I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire."
Emerson and Whitman became fast friends. But in 1860, as Whitman was preparing to publish the third edition of Leaves of Grass, he ran into opposition from his greatest champion.
While visiting Emerson, the two poets went for a long walk through the Boston Commons. In his diary, Specimen Days, Whitman tells us that the two walked and talked the better part of an afternoon, during which Emerson persistently tried to convince Whitman not to publish his "Children of Adam" poems, which revealed his homosexuality. Whitman recounts that he listened for two hours without saying a word. When Emerson was done, Whitman was more certain than ever that he was right -- he couldn't hide who he was.
This is a profound example of quiet integrity -- staying true to one's own nature and staying whole. Steadfastness, in its deepest regard, inhabits the resolve not to be persuaded or worn down to be something we are not. Stubbornness, on the other hand, is resisting the teachers and lessons we are given that invite or require us to change and grow. The line between the two is often thin and steadfastness can slip into stubbornness all too quickly, while we are the last to know.
A Question to Walk With: Begin to tell the story of the most steadfast person you have known as well as the story of the most stubborn person you have known. Describe one way you are steadfast these days and one way you are stubborn. What's the difference?
For more by Mark Nepo, click here.
For more Poetry for the Soul, click here.