Emerson’s advice on how to decline a meeting

One of the stresses of modern office work is being called to do more than one thing at the same moment. How painful to decline an important meeting because another event has been scheduled simultaneously, and how often the scheduling process creates intricate moral tangles. But not for Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Why should I fret myself because a circumstance has occurred which hinders my presence where I was expected? If I am not at the meeting, my presence where I am should be as useful to the commonwealth of friendship and wisdom, as would be my presence in that place.
(From Experience, 1844)

That is not what I would write in an apologetic response to a Doodle or Meetingwizard request, but I admire the sentiment. Of course, in the same essay, Emerson also suggests a deeper aversion to being helpful in the customary ways: “A sympathetic person is placed in the dilemma of a swimmer among drowning men, who all catch at him, and he give so much as a leg or finger they will drown him. … In this our talking America we are ruined by our good nature and listening to all sides.”

(See also: Ben Franklin’s fundraising advice.)

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.