Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 7th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.
“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.”
The first part of this stanza is probably self evident to all but the most naive, so I’m not going to spend much time talking about it. We know that we can be ripped off and that there are scam artists out there. What interests me more is the balance the author brings by reminding us that it’s not all bad. Indeed, the opposite is possible – high ideals do exist. And not just that – many people strive for them.
It’s so easy to become cynical, and the older you are, the more likely that you can become jaded by the hypocrisy, lies, self interest and manipulation that seems to abound. People we once regarded as heroes have sadly been exposed as fraudsters or paedophiles. Whenever I see a documentary spouting the theme “exposing the real truth about (insert name)”, I just don’t want to know. I’m tired of seeing heroes fall and finding out that good people are not so good.
Indeed the world can sometimes seem to be full of smoke and mirrors. The Catholic church, for example, supposedly a bastion of Christian virtue, has been guilty of protecting and covering up the sexual sins of some of its priests, at the expense of thousands (millions?) of sexual abuse victims and their shattered lives. The very people that were entrusted to their care have become expendable in the effort to protect priests. We really don’t have to look far to become disillusioned. Things unfortunately are often not what they seem.
This cynicism, though justified, is not good for the soul, and can harden us from the inside out. Compassion, joy, and light heartedness are its casualties. The author of Desiderata would spare us that by reminding us that a hard heart is not unavoidable.
For example: we have all heard of, and no doubt experienced personally, businesses that rip us off and don’t deliver what they promise. Yet I am in business myself (as a financial adviser), and though I certainly want to make a profit, I occasionally have found myself wanting to help my clients in spite of a lack of remuneration. And I’m not alone – I have heard many stories of other professionals genuinely helping clients above and beyond the call of duty. Add to this tradesmen, mechanics, and a whole range of other occupations where they have, at times, gone the extra mile. Most of you (hopefully all of you) have had such an experience at least once. If you are in business yourself, it would not surprise me if you have done the same.
Yet it’s surprisingly hard to do something altruistic, as people have a hard time believing you are doing something for nothing. A couple I had known for years and who had served sacrificially in church positions all their life, didn’t have a whole lot of finances to show for it. When they asked me for advice I told them I would do it for free as a gesture to their faithfulness and what it had cost them to serve as they had. Financial advice can be quite expensive, and I could see them struggle with my offer, the wife in particular – she just had a look of scepticism on her face. I can only assume she was thinking “What’s the catch?”. Long story short, they didn’t take me up on my offer. And they aren’t the only ones who have looked at me sceptically when I offered to do something that didn’t make me a profit.
A different example: we see stories, too many to mention and with mind numbing regularity, about men and their brutalising of women. It would be easy, and certainly understandable, to regard all men with suspicion. But then we occasionally hear stories of the opposite kind. I read recently of a case where a woman, dead drunk, was being molested and no doubt soon to be raped, when two young men on bicycles who were riding by came to her rescue. That woman, though still traumatised by the event, now has a drawing of two bicycles taped to the ceiling of her bedroom that she gazes on when she lies in bed. It still gives her so much comfort to know that rescue had come and that there are good people in the world.
Thank goodness not all men are assholes. It is still helpful to remind ourselves that the majority of men actually can be trusted – the problem, of course, is knowing who.
So how do we strike this balance? How do we find a way to be cautious and yet keep our hearts open to the possibility (even the likelihood) of goodness and heroism?
It’s helpful to remember that no-one is perfect. I mentioned earlier that I don’t want to watch TV exposes of well known people. The fact is if any of us look too deeply at anyone, including me or you, we are not going to like what we see – or rather, we’re not going to like everything we see. We’ve all got skeletons in the closet, and I’ve reached the point where I just don’t want to know. No hero is perfect, but that doesn’t mean that he or she still hasn’t done good things. Their heroism, or altruism, can be real, even if it isn’t all of who they are.
So let’s not swallow a sugary pill that everyone is essentially wonderful. Disillusionment will quickly take root if we hold such an elevated view. But on the other hand let’s recognise the good that does exist. And I’m not interested here in delving into the philosophical discussion that surrounds this topic (eg that we are good only out of selfish motives). Regardless of motivation, in real life, in real ways, many people do strive for high ideals (I bet many of you do) and everywhere life truly is full of heroism, if you look for it.
I used to be a drug counsellor in a former life, and learnt first hand the devious and manipulative ways of drug users. It hardened me, and I found my compassion slowly draining away. But eventually I made the decision to give people a chance again – not with much, just a little, but give them a chance anyway. If I see a person begging on the street for money, my first thought is they’re going to use it for drugs or alcohol. Even if that’s likely, I can’t know that. So I have decided to give anyway. If I get ripped off, then I haven’t lost much, and I have maintained my humanity.
The author of Desiderata would wish us the same – that we remain open to goodness as we cautiously step through life. In doing so we keep our souls alive and our humanity intact.
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.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.