Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate. Self-emancipation even in the West Indian provinces of the fancy and imagination—what Wilberforce is there to bring that about?
Henry David Thoreau
William Wilberforce was an English philanthropist best known as the driving force for abolishing slavery in Britain. In his essay Walden, Thoreau compares the attitude of a person with the tyranny of slavery. People are often so limited by their own attitudes, or what we would call today, self image, that they enslave themselves.
Scott Dinsmore tells the story of Roger Bannister, who, in 1954 ran a mile in under four minutes. This feat had long been declared physically impossible, but later that same year, John Landy joined Bannister in the achievement. Since then, dozens of runners have broken this “unbreakable” barrier.
What is different from then to now? Why was this absolutely impossible before 1954, and yet many runners have now achieved it? The fact is, it was never impossible, except in people’s minds. The attitude of slavery imprisoned runners above the 4-minute mark, until somebody broke that barrier and showed that it had been illusory all along.
To use Thoreau’s phrase, what do you think of yourself? Thoreau spoke of a farmer burdened by the land and agricultural implements passed down to him by his father. That kind of inheritance was considered a great boon in his day, but he saw that it also imprisoned a man to do back-breaking farm work all his life. He never considered there might be another option.
I searched most of my life for that one passion that would transform me into a person of purpose, and therefore worth. When I discovered my Multipassionate nature, I realized that I am in control of my destiny. I don’t find my purpose, I create it. My choices make it happen, and my attitude determines my choices.
Thoreau tells the story of an old farmer who told him that a human can’t live on vegetables alone because we need meat for bone growth. He imparted this wisdom while being dragged along behind a plow by the strong bones and muscles of a vegetarian cow. Look for similar blinders in your life. We can learn from the past, and value its lessons, but must never allow them to imprison us with wisdom that may no longer be, or never was, true.
Wilberforce broke the back of slavery in England. He didn’t buy the conventional wisdom that one race is inferior to another. He didn’t accept the common attitude that abolishing slavery was economic suicide, or that ending slavery must be a gradual process. He made a world-changing difference because he saw himself as an agent for good.
Like Thoreau, like Wilberforce, we can achieve far more than our own personal success. We can make a difference in the lives of others by helping them change the way they think about themselves.
I sat in an eighth grade history class this morning and listened to a veteran teacher telling his students that their future depends on their attitude. He’s right, but more than that, the future of those we know and live also depends on how we think of ourselves. Put your plans and dreams into practice now.