This is the third in a series unpacking some of the timeless truths held in the poem “Desiderata”, where we examine its contents line by line
“Speak your truth quietly and clearly, and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant. They too have their story.”
I have always been keen to share my opinion – a little too keen sometimes (I can see my friends nodding their heads as I say this). In group discussions, I have found myself becoming impatient to be heard. Now, you may know someone like that, so it would not surprise you to know that people who are keen to air their opinions quickly tend to lose the attention of others. I have had to learn over the years to bite my tongue, wait my turn, and if possible, wait for a pause in the discussion to quietly put forth another view. That last one, waiting for a pause, I still find very hard to do.
But I have noticed that the ones who do wait, who are unhurried in giving their opinion, are listened to all the more readily. If they have nothing to say of any value, then sure enough the conversation moves on. But if their view has any credibility, it is much more readily weighed up and added to the discussion.
You see, someone who speaks quietly and clearly shows that they are not flustered, that they are not speaking out of a need of their own. They are in control of their words and emotions. And it doesn’t have to mean that they are ‘quiet’ people.
I interpret the word ‘quietly’ to mean that their voices don’t contain an overly emotional element to it. Its one thing to speak with passion, that’s great – its another to speak with emotions spilling out all over the place. Even an angry response, for example, spoken with measured tones and words, has much more impact than someone seething with every word they utter. The best discipline a parent can give to their child is one that is purposeful and controlled. Angry outbursts not only frighten children, they also tend to lose respect for their parents because they are demonstrating that they’re out of control.
People who speak quietly and clearly do run the risk of not being heard at all, or missing the opportunity to put in their two bobs worth (which is one of the reasons why I find it so hard to wait) but over time they develop a reputation for having something to say, and people make room for them out of an awareness of the contribution they make.
“Listen to others” – two good things about this. Firstly, from a purely selfish point of view, if you listen to others you earn the right for them to listen to you. You respect their opinion, and they are more likely to respect yours. Secondly, they just might have something to say. We’re not going to be right all the time – far from it, and a humble awareness of what we can learn from others I think is a pre-requisite for success. No man (or woman) is an island.
When we don’t listen to others, we run the very grave risk of not only missing out on some good ideas, but also that we will end up speaking nonsense. How can you answer someone if you haven’t paid attention to what they’ve said? I can’t think of specific instances at this moment, but I’ve lost count of the times where I realised I hadn’t really heard what someone was saying, and then proceeded to give an entirely unnecessary or inappropriate response. Some of the most engaging people I have ever met are those who refuse to gaze around the room when others speak to them, but listen carefully to what they have to say.
“Even the dull and ignorant – they too have their story”. Who is to say they really are dull and ignorant? We make snap judgements about people, and then discount anything they have to say. That’s unfortunate.
Now if they really are dull and ignorant, I think you would be approaching sainthood to be able to listen to them, at least for any stretch of time. It’s true that they have their story, and that we can learn from anyone, but for me I’m afraid it’s taking it too far to readily listen to dull and ignorant people. So I could be diverging from the author slightly on this point. I would say, however, that we need to be ready to notice when they do say something of value.
It’s okay (I think) to have an opinion about somebody, adverse or otherwise , because that’s how we get through life. We size up people and situations and act accordingly (its actually how our brain works – we categorise things in order to make sense of our world). But are we prepared to let them out of the box that we have put them in? The trick is to always be willing to review our opinion of someone and to recognise that all sorts of valuable comments can come from all sorts of people.
So there you have it. I find the more I think about the themes in Desiderata, the more I appreciate the simple wisdom it contains. More to come!
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals; and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.