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.
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.