Walt Whitman’s Advice to the Young on the Building Blocks of Character and What It Takes to Be an Agent of Change
By Maria Popova
“In the long run,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in considering how we bring about social change, “there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” A generation after her, Albert Camus examined what it really means to be a rebel and asserted that the true rebel is not one who aims to destroy the existing order of things but one who “says yes and no simultaneously.” And yet the hardest project of self-actualization is that of discerning what to accept and what to reject — of the world and of ourselves — as we build the architecture of our character and stake out our stance in relation to our obstacles and aims.
Long before Camus and Roosevelt, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) took up these questions in Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it.
Although the preface to the original edition contains Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, tucked toward the end is a short poem titled “To a Pupil,” which captures in three spare verses his most concentrated and consecrating advice to the young — wisdom on the path to self-actualization, the essential discipline of personhood, and what it takes to be an effective agent of social change.
TO A PUPIL
Is reform needed? is it through you?
The greater the reform needed, the greater the Personality you
need to accomplish it.
You! do you not see how it would serve to have eyes, blood,
complexion, clean and sweet?
Do you not see how it would serve to have such a body and soul
that when you enter the crowd an atmosphere of desire
and command enters with you, and every one is impress’d
with your Personality?
O the magnet! the flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day
to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.
Leaves of Grass remains a life-expanding trove of existential vitality. Complement this particular fragment with more abiding advice to the young from Seamus Heaney, a Whitman of our time, and from Cecilia Payne, who set out on her career as a pioneering astrophysicist on the centennial of Whitman’s birth, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living, the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, and his most direct reflection on happiness.
Published May 8, 2018