Desiderata 12


Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 12th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“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.”

You may have heard the analogy of having your emotional “tank” full or empty. When you’re running on empty you’ve got nothing left to give, and are dangerously close to breaking down in one form or another. The remedy is simple – spend time with the people/things that fill you up emotionally and give you a sense of wholeness again. Unfortunately that’s not always possible, and in such instances you have to work out how to keep going on the smell of an oily rag.

But Desiderata isn’t really taking here about having your tank full (though it helps!). He is talking more about nurturing your own inner ability to be strong. Whilst filling ourselves up emotionally is a really good idea, we still need that strength of spirit that says “I’m going to keep standing as long as I have to, and I’m going to see this through”. 

It’s true that some people are born with an amazing (and sometimes infuriating) tenacity and stubbornness. Like Winston Churchill, they are the kind of person to say “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never…” and back it up with their unflinching determination. But many of us aren’t like that. Whilst I have a good deal of tenacity, I lack that ironclad, immovable, unshakeable faith in myself and in what I am saying or doing. Chances are you’re similar to me in that regard – I’m pretty sure I’m no Robinson Crusoe here.

But strength of spirit is crucial to all of us. Without it we simply won’t make it. Oh we might survive and even live long, but our lives will be broken, or empty, or somehow less-than, if we are not able to gird our loins in the midst of adversity. We need to be able to keep ourselves together and not give up on ourselves. Those who have given up on themselves (and no judgement here, we don’t know what they’ve been through) sometimes never really recover.

The author of Desiderata gives us no clues as to how to do this. And this is no self help blog, so I have no intention of listing any tips or tricks. But I will say this: be aware that you need to do this. Make sure you build yourself up, not with flattery or ego, but with the simple understanding that times will come where you will have to stand alone. Whilst we need each other and can expect that others will come to our aid, be sure of this – there will be times when no-one can or no-one will be there for you.

In every marriage, for example, there are going to be times when your spouse just can’t or won’t provide what you need. That’s just reality. When that happens, it’s not the time to berate them or to wonder why you married them in the first place. That’s often a manipulative attempt to get others to carry you. No, it is a time to draw on your own inner resources, and sometimes even just be there for them, until things return to normal. I believe it’s a sign of a healthy marriage when both parties have the ability to stand on their own two feet when’s it’s absolutely necessary. It creates respect and it can even draw people closer once they realise each other’s inner strength. There’s an old saying – the ones who are really ready for marriage are the ones who don’t actually need to get married.

Desiderata  doesn’t leave us on our own though. In an about turn, he says in effect “Now don’t overdo it. Don’t be perpetually on your guard, expecting the worst”. We can read too much into things. I know – I am guilty 100 times over of fearing the worst and then finding there was nothing to fear in the first place (so much so that I’m now suspicious of my fears and don’t give in to them so easily). There are some people I know that stand like a rock all on their own all the time – and that’s sad.

We need a balance then, as always. On the one hand, to be internally strong enough to get by during periods of personal drought and hardship. Without it we become too dependent on others or on circumstances. On the other hand, to not make ourselves an island, one constantly on guard, keeping people and opportunity out. That way lies loneliness and unfulfilment.


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.

Be yourself.
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.


The struggle to overcome

The optimists may be right, but its never easy as they say it is

In 2000 I remember going to the cinema with my brother in law to see the film “Cast Away”. Great film even now, for those who haven’t seen it. It was on TV last night and it all came rushing back to me.

It was a profoundly moving film for me, because it is all about decisions, crossroads, and helplessness. If you intend to watch the movie, then spoiler alert, because I want to unpack some of things that happened in the film and how relevant they were for me at that time.

The main character (Tom Hanks) ends up marooned on a small tropical island after a disastrous plane crash. He is not just alone on the island – he is also trapped. The waves and breakers conspire against him to stop him from leaving, as they are just too powerful to get past. He tries, fails, and hurts himself quite badly in the process. He watches the patterns of the tide over the months, and even though there are some times that are less impossible than others, he despairs that even then he still can’t get off the island.

After 4 years, fortune smiles upon him and a piece of bent metal washes up on the shore with which he successfully creates a sail for his makeshift raft. At the appointed time, when the waves are the least boisterous, he finally sails over the breakers and to eventual freedom.

This is so much more to the film than this, but I want to focus on the helplessness he felt in the face of something he could not overcome – the breakers and the tide.

The year 2000 was a very difficult year for me – financially, personally and emotionally. I felt trapped by a whole of range of things that appeared beyond my control. I was going through an early mid life crisis, and felt I had all but exhausted myself in trying to break through my obstacles. If there’s anything that I can lay claim to, it’s that I’m not a quitter, and I had tried my best, but to no avail. I was wrestling an alligator, and the alligator was winning with ease.

When I watched the film and saw his dilemma, I  became emotional. I related so well to the situation, but of course, from a completely different viewpoint. The breakers were my problems. And try as I might, I could not get past them.

When the moment came that his craft rose through and above the waves, tears traced their way down my cheeks. How I wished I could get off my island, past my daunting waves and move forward.

My story has a happy and not so happy ending. I made some momentous decisions that year that altered my life for the better. Big decisions that changed my vocation, my income, and my perspective on life. But not all my obstacles were overcome. I have to say the deepest issues, internal ones, ones that I personally wrestled with, are still with me today. I can say their roar has been dulled, and that I have developed ‘work-arounds’ to cope with how they limit me, and I have grown stronger in some measure as well, but I do still ache to move on past them.

The fact is not everything has a fairy tale ending. Tom Hanks found his piece of metal that he used (ingenuity and decisiveness there by the way) to win his freedom, but it wasn’t smooth sailing after that. He had major heartache and some big decisions  ahead of him.

I took some bold and scary steps and definitely moved on. My life is infinitely better now than it was back then, truly. But I suppose if I was to use an illustration, it would be that I once was paralysed from the waist down, and now I walk with a limp. (I think actually, that most of us do, but the gait is different for each of us).

So all the emotions of that film came rushing back to me last night, and I wept again. I still haven’t given up on those stubborn problems, but I have come to accept that if I never overcome them, at least I have learnt to enjoy life in spite of them. And there is something warm and fuzzy about tears -they bring their own kind of life. Sadness is curiously a part of being whole too.

And that’s all for now.

Musing on mindfulness

What do you do when life isn’t easy?

Someone once said “life wasn’t meant to be easy” (Malcolm Fraser, one of Australia’s Prime Ministers if you want to know). Now, we can argue about the words “meant to be”, whether life was designed to be hard or not, but I think that most of us would agree with the main premise, that life isn’t easy.

It just isn’t. And the more we improve our chances for a happy life (in terms of governments, rights, health and wealth etc) the more stubbornly life remains “not easy”. Psychologists and philosophers have had a field day trying to explain why, so I’m not going to go there.

Most people aren’t happy or so I’m told, at least not happy often enough or for long enough. Sure, there are a few genuine optimists, but there are also many who just pretend they are. Some of that would be denial; some of it would be a decision to act optimistic in order to have and keep friends; some of it would be optimism because they haven’t thought things through (blind faith if you will); and of course there are as I said, genuine optimists, people who are secure in themselves and able to rationally look for the good whilst not ignoring the bad.

I’m afraid I’m not an optimist. But I do believe in being positive (just not very good at it!). I worry about things, have healthy dollops of anxiety (and unhealthy dollops as well), I tend to fear a negative outcome in situations even though so often it is the exact opposite (thank goodness for that!).

As I said I believe in being positive. One of the tools that can help is something they call ‘mindfulness’, living in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or fearing the future. To pay attention to ‘right now’ rather than lose the now by living in the past or the future. You start out setting time aside to do just that, a kind of meditation if you like, and the idea is that it spreads to a way of living your life. Of course, it’s still right to think about the past or plan for the future, but its all a matter of balance.

If you haven’t guessed already, I find it pretty hard to live in the moment. Nearly every time I try my mind wanders to the past or the future, or on to something that I can do nothing about right there and then.

Mindfulness is meant to be a great exercise to help you sleep. Focus on your breathing, or on sounds, or something that is happening right now, and your body relaxes, your anxieties or preoccupations recede, and off you pop to sleep. And it does work, when I actually succeed in doing it.

And here’s my point of this blog. In spite of the fact that I fear many things, in spite of the fact that I struggle and often fail to overcome my negativity or anxiety, I refuse to stop trying. Because to stop trying is to give in. If I stop trying, then I stay the same. If I don’t give up, there is a chance of movement, a chance of change. I have a saying – “I can change, or I can stay the same”. I don’t want to stay the same. So I will push onwards towards change.

So this is a kind of positive message, in a backhanded sense. Even though I am terrible at mindfulness, I regularly give it another shot. On the odd occasion it works, or at least partly works and I gain the benefit. What do I have to lose? Nothing but my lack of sleep.

So for what it’s worth, even though life is hard, it’s all we’ve got. There are still many many moments of joy and happiness even if they don’t last (actually the fact that they don’t last makes them all the more wonderful). A better life can be carved out, even if sometimes it is won inch by gruelling inch. “You can change. Or stay the same”. What would you prefer?

Giving in to reality

Some things we just don’t want to admit (and maybe that’s not always wrong)

I have been hearing a lot about positive thinking recently, and what’s not to like about it. Makes sense to dwell on the good instead of the negative, but man, it’s hard to do!

The reality is that most of us (or nearly all of us?)  tend to live in negativity more than optimism. It’s funny though, because studies show us to have an “optimism bias”. We always think bad things will happen to the other guy, not us. So we don’t take precautions, don’t take out enough insurance, tend to think that illness or injury won’t happen to us etc.

Take me for example. I now have a nagging shoulder complaint called ‘bursitis’. It’s been coming for some time now, but I kept on thinking it was a pain that would eventually go away. In my defence I’ve had numerous pains over the years that have mysteriously arisen and just as mysteriously departed a couple of months later, so I thought this would be the same. But the thing is this – I have  never entertained the notion that I would have a long lasting injury, and apparently bursitis can only be managed – it is unlikely to go away.

This infuriates me. Pain I can put up with, if I know that in a few days or a couple of weeks it will go away. Then I can just get back to doing the things I like to do  – working out, boxing (not actual boxing, but boxing exercises), repairs and tasks around the house and so on. But the idea that my life is irrevocably changed (because now there are a number of things that I can’t do) does not sit well at all. Because even though the bursitis is limited to my right shoulder its amazing how many activities it affects. I’ve even noticed when playing bass it can aggravate my shoulder now.

Now I know that there are many people with debilitating injuries that simply have to cope with it and get on with their lives, some of them far, far worse than bursitis. And I know that I too, if I have to, will cope, readjust and get on with my life. But I really, really don’t want to.

I’m in a kind of denial thing. I’m not getting any younger, and have always seen myself as a bit of a maverick (an overstatement but you get the idea), doing things that many older people don’t. I play in rock bands; I push myself at gym and used to even do back to back classes just to increase my stamina. At one stage I went hiking with friends – the whole 20kg pack and 3-4 day trips (I still would, but the opportunity to do so is no longer there). I always thought to myself that I would live a full life right up to the age of 80 and beyond. That may still happen, but the spectre of bursitis looms, threatening my mobility and fitness.

Now the funny thing is, I know my future is still up to me. I know that I can adjust if I have to. And I know that my life is what I make it. I have a friend who was involved in a motorbike accident some 30 years ago, and ever since I’ve known him has had a largely non-functioning right arm. But you would never know it, the way he just gets on with living.

I’ve already modified the way I put on my shirt and how I lower myself into the bath (2 activities that bring pretty strong pain the way I used to do it). I use the computer mouse with my other hand now, I try not to drive using my right hand too much, and I suppose the list will increase as I work out how to minimise pain. Of course, I am hoping that the right mix of changes and exercises will magically cause the bursitis to disappear, or at least become so manageable that 90% of the things I want do, I can still do.

That’s my optimism bias kicking in. I want to be the one that shakes it off (some people do apparently). And in one way that’s a good thing. It’s good not to give up. But am I being optimistic, or am I refusing to admit to something that I find somewhat terrifying? Am I in denial? I can tell you right now, I don’t want to give in to it, and will spend a lot of time, effort and money trying to get it fixed. But I must not run from reality – there’s darkness that way.

I think as long as I choose to live life to the full, still in full recognition of my limitations, I will be okay. If necessary, there is life after gym, or bands, or hiking. My friend with the dsyfunctional arm has taught me that. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that most of us struggle with negativity in some form or another that I too fear a future without the things I currently enjoy. Perhaps my fear that I will “miss out” (a confession from an earlier blog) makes me scared of a future without the things I just mentioned.

I want to be real, and don’t want to finish with some saccharine positive mantra designed to placate myself and you, the reader. Nevertheless, while I will fight a fair bit yet before succumbing to my injury, I am quite convinced that there is another life I can live, different to my present one, that can still be rich in pursuits and enjoyment. I hope I have the maturity to recognise when or if the time comes to let go of some things to reach out to others.

When life deals you a lousy hand

Sometimes there’s only so much you can do

Nothing upbeat today, folks. Sometimes its important to let sadness to dwell with us for a little while.

I found out yesterday that someone I knew as a young man had just passed away. He had had a tough life, struggled with alcoholism and looked like the faintest shadow of the person he was. The thing is, he had issues as a young man – he had been involved in an accident that left him a little brain damaged. He was always a bit blunt, heavy handed and struggled with anger.

I could be wrong, because I know we all have choices, but I can’t but feel that life dealt him a lousy hand. When you can’t control your own mind due to damage, what can you do? I’ve had my share of things in life that I have struggled desperately to change, and they have stubbornly remained, or only changed a little along the way. Thankfully those issues have not been my undoing – they were not so severe (they were severe to me) to cripple my life, although I have certainly paid a price because of them.

But here we have a man, unable to control his emotions and with inadequate reasoning skills, fighting to make life work. Now the truth is I have no concept of the choices he made and the life he lived. I barely knew him then and certainly have no idea whatsoever of the choices he made that brought him low. But how bewildering life must have been for him. To come up against his own inadequacies and be unable to change them (an assumption I know but one based in bitter experience and observation).

I saw a photo of him, looking poor and emaciated, smiling in a strained way, and I remember the strapping young man who tried very hard to present himself as together, focussed and confident (but which it was easy to see even then he was none of those things). It could be that my imagination is working overtime, but I see him struggle to get it right and just see the things he wanted fall away relentlessly and inexorably.

I know full well as I write this that this could be complete bosh. I wasn’t there, I haven’t seen him throughout his life. I’m working with scraps, I know. I did talk with him a few years ago at his father’s funeral, and even then he was old before his time, and his clothes spoke of poverty, and he had that glint in his eye of someone struggling to find peace. I know that he struggled with alcoholism and that he had been trying very hard in recent times (perhaps longer) to break free.

The sad thing is, some things other people can’t help with. You can only be so kind (and you should), you can only be so available (and you should, and in any case too much support is condescending and ultimately unhelpful). You can only give so much advice, and the person you are helping has to use whatever you provide and add it to their own determination to help themselves. But only they can solve their own problems in the end, and sometimes determination and support and advice just aren’t enough. How do you overcome brain damage? How do you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps?

So I think of him and I am sad, because I think that apart from some miracle (maybe finding that one person in 1000 who had just the right temperament to be married and constant to him), his life was always going to be hard, and frustrating, and limited by the walls he couldn’t scale.

Evan, I never really knew you. You may have been a good man, you may have been a bad man, but I hope, after a lifetime of struggle, you have finally found peace.