Desiderata 13

Desiderata 13

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 13th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

Desiderata is full of wisdom, but it holds some nuggets that are bigger and even more important than others. “Be yourself”, earlier in the poem, was one. This is another.

I know why the author speaks of wholesome discipline. Because, too often, the discipline we place ourselves under is anything but. He also exhorts us to be gentle with ourselves. Why? Because, invariably, we are not.

Like most of us, I have tried to improve in areas important to me over the years, and have given myself a hard time when I’ve fallen short. After all, there’s a lot riding on it, or so we think. We want to be successful in life, and can get discouraged when stubborn habits or weaknesses remain in spite of our best efforts. So we double down on them, and try even harder. Some of us just give up, but even then our inner critic doesn’t.

We’ve all have been told, by self image experts, to love ourselves, because we all too easily hate ourselves. That’s a tricky thing to pull off, and by the way, I don’t think they’ve got it quite right. Let me attempt to bring some clarification before we move forward.

I believe we already care deeply about ourselves – without exception. We care deeply enough to hate the things about us that stop us from living fulfilled lives. Subtle difference but I believe it’s important. We hate the things about ourselves that get in the way of happiness, and so we work on those things in an effort to fix them and then to be happy. The fact that some people punish themselves is a reflection that they believe punishment will do them good, that it will motivate them to change and be better people. It doesn’t.

That’s why any self-discipline must be wholesome. I want to change, but beating myself about the head and demeaning myself with my self-talk (“you idiot”, “how could you be so stupid”) doesn’t get me anywhere. Does it get you anywhere?

So why do we do it if it’s so unhelpful? I’m tempted at this point to pull up a psychiatrist’s couch and talk to you about your role models (believe it or not, your parents for the most part). But I’ll resist, and say for now that somewhere along the way you learnt that negative language is part of the way to fix things. Your thinking might go along these lines – “If I’m soft on myself, I’ll never change. Got to be tough, got to face up to it, grit my teeth, take my medicine. Saying “there, there, you poor thing” isn’t going to help me change”.

And you know, you’re right. We do have to be tough on ourselves. And self-pity isn’t really isn’t going to help. But sooner or later we have to replace the punitive self-language (and punitive behaviours) with a discipline that helps, not hinders.

And that’s a can of worms in itself. As I’ve said a number of times, this is no self help blog, it’s a sharing blog. I’m not going to state the “5 top things you need to do to overcome your negative self image”.

But I will point you in a general direction. Ask yourself the question “Are my internal attempts at discipline wholesome?”. Definition – “Wholesome – conducive to or suggestive of good health and physical well being” (from Google search). “Wholesome – promoting health or well being of mind or spirit” (Merrimack Webster dictionary).  “Wholesome – conducive to moral or general well being; salutary; beneficial”. (Dictionary.com).

You might say your goal is to be wholesome. Desiderata suggests that your efforts to get there need to be wholesome too. Can you say that your attempts to improve are wholesome, or do they put you on a knife edge of achievement or failure? Not just the result, but the process. If you find yourself wrung out, angry at yourself, or even disgusted in your attempts to improve – it’s not wholesome. 

Something needs to change. Desiderata tells us to be gentle with ourselves. I can imagine many people muttering to themselves “That will never work”. The stakes are too high – failure hurts too much. Being soft isn’t going to cut it.

I think the only way we can swallow this is to recognise that being hard on ourselves hasn’t worked – and it never will. Or if it has “worked” then we continue to live with an inner monster waiting to pounce on us the moment we fail. No, we have to realise it doesn’t work, and only then will we consider other options.

Have high expectations, yes. Gird yourself for action –  yes. But what if it takes a longer time to change than you would like? What if in fact we never do change to the degree we want? We have to get the point of “So be it”. Never give up (and I mean that) but recognise that a longer or slower process may be, and often is, necessary. Patience with ourselves tends to take the edge off that inner critic. Try it.

Let me finish with a light hearted story about myself. I love desserts – have a real sweet tooth. Now that the kids have grown up, Linda doesn’t make dessert so often. That’s okay – I’ve stepped up to the plate instead. I’ve never really cooked much, but about a year ago I started making my favourite desserts. And to my delight, they turned out pretty nicely, so I have continued.

But I’m fussy – I want to make a great dessert. So when I eat my desserts, I talk like a food critic –“hmmmm, pastry is a little dry, filling is yummy but needs a little more (whatever)….”. Linda likes my desserts too, and joins in a little with the food critic thing as well. I end up saying “Next time I’ll (add less flour, make more syrup…)” and Linda shakes her head. She says “It’s a good dessert, why do you want to make it perfect?”.

I had to think about my answer for a while, and it wasn’t because I was being hard on myself. Not at all – I really did enjoy my successes, and didn’t hate my mistakes. But I wanted to perfect each dessert because I wanted to enjoy the eating of it even more. I want to take a bite and be transported as much as possible to culinary heaven (did I say I love food?). The whole exercise isn’t filled with dread (I must make the perfect dessert or I’m worth nothing!) – it’s simply a desire to enjoy as much as possible what I create. And if I stuff up a dessert, I’m only mildly disappointed – I don’t take it to heart. There’s always next time.

Now, I know that making desserts is hardly live or die stuff. For many of us, particularly those in their aspirational years (teens to forties?) we desperately want to achieve happiness, whatever that looks like for us. But the principle is the same. Can you enjoy your successes? Learn and move on? Recognise that you’re doing your best and that’s what matters? Can you be gentle with yourself?

This is a longer blog than normal, and I feel I could say so much more, because learning a wholesome discipline is not easy, and I failed spectacularly as a younger man in this regard (still learning now, of course). I haven’t stopped in my desire to improve, and I don’t think I ever will. But I am more patient, I enjoy the fruits of my labour more for what they are than for how others will perceive me, and I think that helps my self-discipline to be more wholesome as well.

Maybe for you, my illustrations don’t really help. Maybe patience, for example, isn’t enough, or it’s beyond your reach right now. But whatever it takes, find a way to make your self discipline less accusing, less judgemental. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

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.

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.

Desiderata 11

desiderata11

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 11th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”

In a world that worships youth and vitality, it’s very common to see those of us who are older try to hold on to what is young. Being in my late 50’s, I can certainly relate. On this topic, Desiderata has some gentle, but necessary, advice for us.

I know myself I have tried to minimise the effects of aging. Some people say I look young for my age, and I certainly try to stay fit. I go to the gym regularly (have done since my late 30’s). I’ve always been slim, but since my mid forties have had to actively watch what I eat in order to keep weight from packing on. My hair has slowly been thinning for 15 years now and I’ve been able to get away with a ‘semi’ comb-over that didn’t look like a comb-over, but in recent times that’s exactly what it’s looked like and has had to go. I now keep my hair pretty short and it looks fine – it’s just a different look.

I’ll confess I have struggled a bit against aging (those of you who read my blog have noted my occasional comment on this). I don’t want to accept that there are some things I can’t do anymore – I’m a little bit in denial (but only a little, because at least I know I am). I’m very good at not giving up on something, which on the one hand is commendable, but on the other hand is not good if you are putting off the inevitable. And there is nothing so inevitable as aging.

This is where Desiderata comes in – the author gently exhorts us to “take kindly the counsel of the years”, and surrender gracefully. Lovingly put. It’s unwise to resist the inevitable, and even though we shouldn’t just ‘give up’, there is a certain dignity in recognising one’s limitations.

It need not be an abrupt, heart wrenching capitulation.We shouldn’t package ourselves up for the nursing home just yet, but at the same time we shouldn’t try to be a young person all over again. Even though I fully intend to do as much as I can, both physically and mentally, I should still take stock of climbing ladders for example (I’ve read that people over 50 are less able to balance properly and ladders need to be approached with caution). That’s just wisdom.

Part of our problem is not just accepting the limitations of our bodies. I think we have a myth, propogated by society, that youth is where life is at its best. I don’t think that’s true. We’ve all heard stories beginning with “if I could be young again I would…”, but almost always they add in “if I knew what I know now”. Well, there’s the thing – a young person doesn’t know what you know now, and they can’t. That’s the beauty and the fragility of their world. In your world now, the beauty is in your wisdom, is (hopefully) in the rounding out of your character, perhaps also the size of your bank balance, and the fragility for you is unfortunately your body.

We face a different world when we are older, but in some ways it is a better world. My wife and I now have the time and the resources to go on trips overseas. With the benefit of wisdom and our lived experiences, we make decisions about things more easily and confidently than we did as younger people. 

In my line of work I come across a lot of clients who are retired or about to retire. It’s not uncommon, once they’ve retired, for many of them to say “I don’t know how I ever found time to work, I’m so busy doing things!” They’re involved in charities, or helping with grandkids, or going on holidays, or enjoying golf, or gardening, or reading, or visiting friends and family.

Of course, not everyone is in that category. I’ve also known people who didn’t want to retire because they dreaded knowing what to do with themselves once they stopped work. The person whose business I bought several years ago sold it in order to retire, but in handing the business over he went through extreme anxiety, and only a year later he bought another small business just to keep himself busy. One of my clients was forced to retire a few years ago because the business was relocating interstate, and at the age of 72 he reluctantly accepted his redundancy package. Whenever I visit him he looks at a loss to know what to do with himself, and he tries to find all sorts of ways to keep me there for a longer chat, because he’s lonely.

So, old age has its faults and obvious downsides but isn’t automatically a terrible thing. It’s just different. But in our youth filled western environment, we hear all about Botox, face lifts, hair transplants (for balding men) and a smorgasbord of potential beauty enhancers, designed at least in part to stave off the effects of aging. We might look younger (emphasis on the word “might”) but our bodies are still older on the inside.

I don’t really want to go out to night clubs anymore, or have all night rages. I do wish I could still play footy, but not massively. I don’t really want to go through the hassle of finding a life partner again (though I know of course some of you at my age are doing just that). I don’t really want to go through having babies and small children again (though I look forward eagerly to having grand kids). I do wish I had the energy of a younger person, but in reality I don’t need that level of energy anymore, because I don’t have to face raising kids or working extra long hours to impress the boss or get ahead. If necessary, I can take my time to get things done.

It’s simply a different world, a different phase of life for people who are more than half way through their life. But it really is a “surrendering gracefully the things of youth”. I think we do actually need to surrender them. Lets not be too eager to do that before our time, but when that time comes, most of us make a conscious decision to let go.

I don’t want to try and be something that I am not (that theme again, which runs right through Desiderata). If there is something you or I want to do, I think the best approach is to say “Do I really want to do this? Am I being foolish in trying to do something that my age simply will not let me do?” If the answer is yes and then no, then I say go for it.

It’s not up to someone else to tell you to act your age – they can of course, but you have to be the one to decide if there is wisdom there or not. Unfortunately, unless they know you really well, they’re more likely to categorise you and try to limit your decisions by their notions of what an older person can do.

There are men in their 80’s still pushing weights at the gym, there are women of the same age still working in charities, there are people of both sexes writing, painting, giving, sharing. Older age can be full of so much activity, enjoyment, and fulfilment. What more could you ask? Let the young people enjoy their youth – and let yourself enjoy the life that comes with your advancing years.

Interestingly, we are seeing more movies and shows these days featuring old people in lead roles, where they are not trying to be anything other than old. And I think (and ladies you can tell me if I’m wrong) there has been an upsurge in fashion for older women. Perhaps our culture is finally allowing older people to carry themselves with dignity, and be comfortable with who they are.

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.

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.

Is the ‘road more travelled’ such a bad idea?

We often hear great stories of people who have taken the path less travelled, and how it made all the difference. It’s exciting, inspiring and certainly gets me motivated.

But the truth is that it takes a particular kind of individual to take that road. In a sense it’s a given – the reason why the road is less travelled is that most people don’t have the courage or insight to take it in the first place. And while I never want to squash anyone’s sense of adventure, and although I really do value our uniqueness and the way we live our lives, the road more often travelled (or at least parts of it) is more travelled for a very good reason – for many people it’s a better way to go.

What I’m targetting here is the tendency of some to automatically assume that if everyone else is doing it, if it’s a typical part of most people’s lives, then it’s somehow mundane, and not a part of authentic living. Now if what everyone else is doing just isn’t you, then fair enough – don’t do it. But if you are scared that you are giving in to the status quo, then just maybe the status quo isn’t the awful ogre it is so often made out to be. Mundane things can actually be quite wonderful.

There is no shortage of inspiring role models, people who go against the flow and achieve remarkable things. Steve Jobs comes to mind, a remarkable individual by any measure – but, from what I can tell, I would not have wanted to be him in a million years. My understanding is that he was a manipulator, perhaps a sociopath, consumed with one thing – his way. The reason why he was so successful is because his way worked – he was right so much more often than he was wrong.

He was indeed unique. But I doubt that he was happy (though there’s no way I can know that), and although his example is indeed inspiring, I’m not sure I want to use his life and example as my yardstick. In fact, if you look closely at most world leaders (in whatever industry, political or otherwise), they are both amazing and possibly some of the most difficult people to live with. Freud was of the opinion that the greatest things done in the world are often achieved by neurotic people trying to work out their neuroses (that’s my attempt to describe his view, and I’m sure it falls considerably short of an accurate description but I hope you get my point).

Let’s look instead for a moment at a mythical person (I’ll call him Harry), who has a good job, falls in love with a good woman, has kids who grow up to be people they can be proud of, and helps others (not too often though, he’s not a saint). Harry enjoys beer with his mates, perhaps likes to work on vintage cars, and has a marriage that has stood the test of time in spite of seasons where they nearly drifted apart. As he looks back, his life has been full of wonderful, ordinary, sad and joyous moments.

That sounds pretty ho hum, but I would wager there are some go-getters out there who would give anything to have what Harry had.

I don’t know if any of you have seen the animated movie “Up”, where in the first few minutes we are introduced to a man who finds the love of his life and they plan to go on adventures. They start to save, but life gets in the way and they have to raid their savings because the car has broken down, one of them is involved in an accident and has to be hospitalised and so on. In the space of a few minutes we whizz through their life, and it seems a joyful, loving, life filled experience, if somewhat uneventful. But they never get to go on that adventure they had hoped for. And that’s where the story begins to kick in.

Gee, these story tellers know how to suck you in. I was captivated by those few minutes of the movie (the rest of it is pretty good too). Their lives, so poignantly portrayed, though insignificant to everyone else, was not insignificant to them. They had lived a full life together even though they had had their share of sorrows (his wife could not conceive). As the rest of the movie kicks in we see an old man coming to terms with the fact that his wife has passed on, and grieving the loss of all the joy he had experienced with her.

If you’re interested, this link will take to a clip of that specific part of the movie. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F2bk_9T482

Why do our lives have to be so significant compared to others (and what counts as significance anyway)? Is it really so terrible to make decisions similar to the vast majority? As long as we are not just following like sheep, as long as we are consciously choosing our life path, as long as it is what we want to do, do we really have to be distinctly different to everyone else? Does our path really have to differ so much?

Now you need to remember that I am a person somewhat driven by a desire to be significant, so it is no small thing for me to be posing these questions. I hope you have noticed, in my blogs, that I really want to squeeze as much out of life as I can (even though I may not have succeeded as much as I would like). Obviously I think it’s a good thing to do. But I also envy people who can be happy with simple things.

If you are driven, rejoice in it. Go for it. Reach for the stars. Think outside the box. Test yourself, defy the limitations that others try to put on you. But if you find, in the process of living your life, that it’s not so different to everyone else’s, just ask yourself if you are happy (or happy enough). If you find that you are dismissing ‘typical’ lifestyles just because they are typical, make sure that you are not doing yourself a disservice.

And of course you may be the kind of person who does not have such drivenness, or not  as much as others. It’s encouraging to know that we don’t have to be people that scale new heights, achieve amazing things, or be noticeably different from everyone else. Just maybe the path you are treading is significant to you, and to those in your life. Enjoy it.