Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 9th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.
“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.”
Prior to this verse, Desiderata has exhorted us to “be yourself”. Then the author goes on to single out feigning affection as the thing especially not to do. That’s a big call. Why this one thing above all others? It makes me wonder if he had a bad experience himself and was particularly sensitive to this specific kind of deception. Is he speaking out of personal hurt, or does he really think that affection is the most important thing not to feign?
Let’s face it, lots of people feign affection. Either they don’t want to offend and so come across as friendly, or they want something and are trying to get into your good books. Think of a teenage kid who has got him or herself into trouble, and goes all smiley and cute/charming (never worked for me!) to soften the punishment or avoid it entirely.
Maybe it’s because affection, once it’s found to be false, hurts more than other forms of deception. But even then, it probably only hurts if you have already let that person get a little close. If I know someone isn’t particularly my friend and they all of a sudden turn on the charm, I can usually tell that they’re after something, so I’m not taken in. But it isn’t always that simple.
Recently, a guy who worked in the same building with me and got on well with me, moved on to another job, helping to build up a new electricity company. Although we got on well, (we seemed to hit it off on a number of levels) I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed my company quite as much as I enjoyed his. A few months passed, and he contacted me out of the blue. I was really pleased because I had missed our chats (though I tried to be pretty casual over the phone!) and after we chatted a bit, he said I must come over some time when I’m in the area to his new place of business. I’m on the road occasionally as part of my job, so I readily agreed and sure enough a few weeks later a window of opportunity opened up and I popped over to catch up.
When I got there, to my surprise he brought another guy into the room with him, someone new to his business. but who also knew a couple of people that I knew. I was expecting just to chat with my friend, maybe over a coffee and a bite to eat. Anyway, we chatted amiably for a while, and then just as I was about to leave, my friend asked if I wanted to switch my electricity across to his new business. I agreed (he had earlier offered me a great deal), and found out later that the new guy he had introduced to me was the one who would be the contact person on my account.
As I made my way home, a sinking feeling slowly came over me. I felt we had met under false pretenses, and it hurt a bit more because I had felt some connectedness with him in the past. And of course, surprise, surprise, I haven’t heard from him since then.
I must confess it hurts a little even now. And it makes me wonder, just a little, if he actually has any close friends. He is a private kind of guy with a lot of emotional baggage, but I wouldn’t have thought he was capable of this. Maybe it was because he was consumed by his business that he stooped to this level. Maybe he’s not even aware of what he has done. Maybe he thinks that he was just doing me a favour, even though none of that surfaced while he was inviting me over.
What happens to us when we feign affection? I suppose we become a little less real, a little less grounded. We are denying who we are, to some extent, by pretending be be somebody else. Affection is, in my opinion, a cornerstone to any long term relationship. Fake that, and just maybe you don’t have a relationship at all. People become disposable, and you become shallow.
Many other ‘deceptions’ might be forgiven – you might pretend to be smarter than you are, or richer than you are, or more athletic, or confident when you’re not, or more knowledgeable on a particular subject, or more relaxed when you’re really quite anxious. Chances are people can see through your subterfuge, and may (or may not!) still like you. But pretend to be affectionate, and once it is found out, people will leave you in droves.
Now, this can sound a little over the top. I’m sure all of us have got ourselves out of trouble by sucking up to someone, and as long as it’s a rare occurrence then we’re probably pretty safe (and really just a little bit human as well). But if it becomes something we routinely do, then we become known as someone lacking substance, not real, even if people can’t quite put their finger on it. My hunch is, though, that they probably can. Most of us can spot a faker from a mile off, just not all the time and maybe not straight away.
Feigning affection surely must hollow us out. We’re not being true to our own emotions, and over time we may lose touch with what we really feel. And that’s the tragedy. Maybe that’s why Desiderata goes on to say next “Neither be cynical about love…”, a comment we will unpack in our next blog on Desiderata.
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.