Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 10th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.
“Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass”.
I wouldn’t blame people for being cynical about love. With a divorce rate of 50%, our society is used to the fickleness of love. Violence in the home, marital unfaithfulness, boredom with each other, falling out of love… The only people who perhaps aren’t so cynical about love might be younger people who haven’t been in love long enough to be seriously let down by it. Maybe love really is a ‘secondhand emotion’, as Tina Turner contemptuously described it.
But that cynicism may also be because people don’t understand love. It’s a complex human condition.
There are actually different kinds of love. Think about it. We say we love a person and we love ice-cream. We love our dad or mum, and we love our boyfriend or girlfriend. Our brother or sister might annoy us half to death, but when push comes to shove most of us still love them. Surely these are all different kinds of love.
There has been no shortage of writers seeking to define love, and many have written about its different dimensions, so I’m not breaking new ground here in making that suggestion. But let’s talk for a moment about what is probably the main culprit of our cynicism – and that is ‘romantic love’.
Romantic love is fickle. When people ‘fall’ in love (interesting phrase by the way, sounds like you can ‘fall’ out of it just as easily), it’s usually an intense emotional experience. It’s wonderful. It’s joyous. It makes the sky look bluer, the grass look greener, the day feel brighter. The reason is, the best I can make out, is that we are overjoyed that the object of our affection loves us back (and of course if they don’t, then there’s the intensity of unrequited love). But believe it or not, romantic love is actually quite selfish. “You make me feel great, and I want to be around you forever”.
There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we recognise it for what it is. And, if we handle it with care, and don’t expect it to do the heavy lifting, it will most likely hang around and pop back up again at the most unexpected moments.
Because there’s the rub. Romantic love cannot last on its own. At first its passion will be intense, but will eventually subside to more normal and less emotionally taxing levels. It actually has to, as our bodies can’t physically cope with sustained emotional intensity. Any relationship that lasts will need more than romantic love. It’s a delicate flower that will lose its petals in a storm. It’s not cut out for the rough stuff.
Desiderata states that love is ‘as perennial as the grass’. If the author is referring here to romantic love by itself, you can tell by my description so far that I would have a hard time agreeing with him.
But perhaps he is referring to a ‘combination’ of loves, as it were. There is a more solid form of love, what some people have called “indifferent love”. Indifferent love is, I think, best described as “caring for someone”. That sounds pretty lame I know, but I don’t know how else to put it. You do something for someone, not because you are motivated by racing emotion, but by a more “objective” decision based on compassion or mercy.
What causes a stranger to walk into a burning house in order to try and rescue someone they don’t even know? This is so common an occurrence that firefighters strenuously try to stop it, because people routinely die from misjudging the danger and plunging headlong in. When the media reports that a family is in dire straits, it’s not uncommon for people to dig deep and give of their own money to a family they have never met. On a more personal level, I hope you have experienced sudden acts of kindness from someone you barely know when you were between a rock and a hard place. And parents often go without to send their kids to school, or to pay for that operation or make a specific opportunity possible.
That kind of love does abound everywhere. And what about that love you might feel for your pesky sibling, or that grumpy grandad? Such people can be a real pain in the neck, but their sudden misfortune or worse still, death, often brings out surprisingly strong feelings of loss or concern. C.S. Lewis described this as affection, something you might feel for someone who has been a part of your world, like it or not, who you might argue with tooth and nail, but suddenly miss deeply if they moved on.
Love is a complex thing indeed, much, much more complex than the feeble attempt I am making to describe it here.
In the presence of indifferent love, affection, and other kinds of loving gestures, romantic love can survive. Like a weed that you think you dug out but springs up again, romantic love can take a holiday (sometimes a long one) and then pop up again when you least expect it. Although it is fickle, romantic love planted and watered in good soil can indeed endure, and perhaps over the long term it may even fit that description of being perennial. It may well disappear without a trace when the going gets tough, but just maybe it will keep coming back.
Desiderata speaks of love “in the face of all aridity and disenchantment”. There is real pain out there in the world, and there are plenty of instances where love has disappeared and cruelty, genuine indifference, or hatred has taken its place. This is not some cheesy slogan that love fixes all. It doesn’t. But it exists – it is all around us, and perhaps if we take the time to remind ourselves and look again, it might just save us from the cancer of ingrained, bitter cynicism.
Let’s be realistic by all means – but let’s not let that realism cause us to lose the joy of possibilities and surprises in a world that is often cruel and heartless.
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.