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.
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.