Desiderata 12

desiderata12

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.

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 9

More on being real

desiderata-9

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 9th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“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.”

Prior to this verse, Desiderata has exhorted us to “be yourself”. Then the author goes on to single out feigning affection as the thing especially not to do. That’s a big call. Why this one thing above all others? It makes me wonder if he had a bad experience himself and was particularly sensitive to this specific kind of deception. Is he speaking out of personal hurt, or does he really think that affection is the most important thing not to feign?

Let’s face it, lots of people feign affection. Either they don’t want to offend and so come across as friendly, or they want something and are trying to get into your good books. Think of a teenage kid who has got him or herself into trouble, and goes all smiley and cute/charming (never worked for me!) to soften the punishment or avoid it entirely.

Maybe it’s because affection, once it’s found to be false, hurts more than other forms of deception. But even then, it probably only hurts if you have already let that person get a little close. If I know someone isn’t particularly my friend and they all of a sudden turn on the charm, I can usually tell that they’re after something, so I’m not taken in. But it isn’t always that simple.

Recently, a guy who worked in the same building with me and got on well with me, moved on to another job, helping to build up a new electricity company. Although we got on well, (we seemed to hit it off on a number of levels) I wasn’t sure if he enjoyed my company quite as much as I enjoyed his. A few months passed, and he contacted me out of the blue. I was really pleased because I had missed our chats (though I tried to be pretty casual over the phone!) and after we chatted a bit, he said I must come over some time when I’m in the area to his new place of business. I’m on the road occasionally as part of my job, so I readily agreed and sure enough a few weeks later a window of opportunity opened up and I popped over to catch up.

When I got there, to my surprise he brought another guy into the room with him, someone new to his business. but who also knew a couple of people that I knew. I was expecting just to chat with my friend, maybe over a coffee and a bite to eat. Anyway, we chatted amiably for a while, and then just as I was about to leave, my friend asked if I wanted to switch my electricity across to his new business. I agreed (he had earlier offered me a great deal), and found out later that the new guy he had introduced to me was the one who would be the contact person on my account.

As I made my way home, a sinking feeling slowly came over me. I felt we had met under false pretenses, and it hurt a bit more because I had felt some connectedness with him in the past. And of course, surprise, surprise, I haven’t heard from him since then.

I must confess it hurts a little even now. And it makes me wonder, just a little, if he actually has any close friends. He is a private kind of guy with a lot of emotional baggage, but I wouldn’t have thought he was capable of this. Maybe it was because he was consumed by his business that he stooped to this level. Maybe he’s not even aware of what he has done. Maybe he thinks that he was just doing me a favour, even though none of that surfaced while he was inviting me over.

What happens to us when we feign affection? I suppose we become a little less real, a little less grounded. We are denying who we are, to some extent, by pretending be be somebody else. Affection is, in my opinion, a cornerstone to any long term relationship. Fake that, and just maybe you don’t have a relationship at all. People become disposable, and you become shallow.

Many other ‘deceptions’ might be forgiven – you might pretend to be smarter than you are, or richer than you are, or more athletic, or confident when you’re not, or more knowledgeable on a particular subject, or more relaxed when you’re really quite anxious. Chances are people can see through your subterfuge, and may (or may not!) still like you. But pretend to be affectionate, and once it is found out, people will leave you in droves.

Now, this can sound a little over the top. I’m sure all of us have got ourselves out of trouble by sucking up to someone, and as long as it’s a rare occurrence then we’re probably pretty safe (and really just a little bit human as well). But if it becomes something we routinely do, then we become known as someone lacking substance, not real, even if people can’t quite put their finger on it. My hunch is, though, that they probably can. Most of us can spot a faker from a mile off, just not all the time and maybe not straight away.

Feigning affection surely must hollow us out. We’re not being true to our own emotions, and over time we may lose touch with what we really feel. And that’s the tragedy. Maybe that’s why Desiderata goes on to say next “Neither be cynical about love…”, a comment we will unpack in our next blog on Desiderata.

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 8

Be yourself – it’s harder than you think

desiderata 8

Desiderata is a poem loved by many for its wisdom and quiet optimism. This is the 8th blog in a series on the poem, as we mine its riches line by line.

“Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection”.

Surely all of us would agree straight away with this part of the poem. What more needs to be said? We’ve all heard that we need to be ourselves. Let’s just heed the advice and move on.

Not so fast. We need to ask, “if this is so obvious, why is it in the poem at all?” It’s because it’s so easy to lose sight of, and harder than you think.

“Be yourself”. That motto has to be the cornerstone of most of the self help books and advice that is on tap these days. The reason it is so pervasive in modern self help is because it’s in such short supply. Being yourself is hard to define, and even harder to live out.

Who are you anyway? Sounds like one of the questions a counsellor would ask you as you lie on the couch (just kidding – most counsellors don’t have couches). Are you what you do? “I’m a painter/architect/stay at home mum/policeman/analyst/stock broker/carpenter…… “. No, that’s not the answer.

Is it your social standing, your position in relation to others? A woman/man, son/daughter, wife/husband/single person/widow/divorcee, rich person/poor person, boss/employee, lover/guardian. I doubt it.

One clever person came up with the idea “it’s who you are when no-one’s looking.” Sounds good to me, but chances are most of us are too confused to know who we are even when we’re alone. About the only difference is that we drop the pretense that we masquerade around others. Admittedly there are a few people who are supremely self confident and comfortable in their own skin – hence they probably have a good idea of who they are. If you are such a one feel free to skip this blog!

For the rest of us, it is a genuinely tough thing to know who you are, let alone let yourself be it. I remember a young man said to me once “I hate who I am, so how can I just be myself?” When he dropped his attempts to please others, he was left with someone he didn’t know and didn’t like.

I trust you’re getting the picture. This phrase “Be yourself” is the single most recurring theme of Desiderata. If you read back through the previous posts, you will see how often the author’s advice comes back to protecting who you are and not losing sight of it.

I’ve been around for a while, and I think I know a thing or two on the subject. I’m not the best role model for self acceptance, but I’m all I’ve got, so I’d like to explain a little of what I’ve learnt.

I’ve got my share of weaknesses and foibles. This is not a confessional and I don’t intend to go into detail here, but I dare say as you read my blogs you’ll get some idea of what I am talking about (because I do tell on myself every now and then). And I have worked hard to overcome things that I haven’t liked about myself – had some successes and some failures too. And I don’t intend to stop now. But one thing I have learned – I know my limitations and I won’t hate myself because of them.

What’s the point of hating myself? It won’t change me – it won’t change you. It will only get in the way. Now you’d think that just accepting your weaknesses would mean you’re on the road to overcoming them. Well maybe – but maybe not. Accepting your weakness means just that – it’s there and it’s unlikely to go away easily. There are some things I’m just not good at, and some of those things I really, really wish I was good at. But I’m not. And though I’m open to growing and improving, I have come to accept that some things are not likely to ever change.

That means when things go wrong in some areas, I don’t get upset. I don’t set myself up for failure by trying to do something that I know I can’t do. Now that sounds a bit defeatist, and I don’t want to encourage that kind of attitude, but all I can say is that when the time comes you’ll know the difference between ‘giving up’ and having the wisdom to know not to expect too much in a certain area.

I’m reminded of an episode from the British TV series “Doc Martin”. He’s an irritable, easily upset person with atrocious people skills who happens to be a brilliant doctor in a small town. Someone in the village actually falls in love with him, and he with her (genuinely), but she eventually finds him impossible to live with. Cut a very long story short, she ends up deciding to stay with him because she loves him and accepts his oddness. Doesn’t try to change him. Doesn’t set him up by expecting him to do things she knows he just can’t do. Accepts that he loves her, and she loves him, and if they’re an odd couple, so be it. (See episode 6 of Season 8 if you’re interested).

Being yourself is no easy feat. And regarding the young man I spoke of, I can so easily understand his frustration. How hard is it for a young person, who so wants his life to be successful, to accept some things about himself which will most likely inhibit at least some of his life goals, but find peace in the rest and just get on with it?

I should say that just as I have accepted my flaws, I have also accepted what I’m good at. I won’t brag about them, and certainly not here, but when the occasion arises I have no trouble saying I’m good at something. And for the most part (maybe not always) I do so without pride. I am who I am. I’m good at this – I’m not good at that.

I haven’t addressed the second part of the quote -“Especially don’t feign affection”. It intrigues me that the author has singled this out more than anything else, but I’ve run out of room with this blog, so we’ll stop here and pick it up next time.

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.

Oh Desiderata!

A timeless piece of writing that still speaks to today

I just reread the poem “Desiderata”, a widely known piece of prose and once used in a song (back in the 70’s?). Its pretty powerful. If you haven’t read it (or heard it), look it up.

I was always thought Desiderata was written by some monk from the 1600’s, it sounded so humble and profound. It is widely (and wrongly) held to be the case, but in fact it was written in 1927 by an American author, Max Ermann. The reason for the confusion surrounding its origins is because the poem was later included in a church book of devotional writings which included that particular church’s foundational date of 1692.

I remember it resonating with me back when I heard so long ago. It is a very peaceful and meaningful poem, though you may not agree with everything in it. I thought I might unpack a little of it today, and maybe unpack a little more from time to time going forward.

“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”.

Wow, if there ever was a noisy world, surely our Western society could be described that way. So much going on, so much instant access, so many opportunities….. It’s so easy to get churned up by the speed and clamour of things around us. Now I, for one, love excitement. I’m a bit of an adrenalin junkie, though less so now than when I was younger. I love it when things are happening, but I also find it hard to find peace.

I remember, many years ago, I was at a concert with a mosh pit out the front. By this time I was in my early 40’s, and the mosh pit was full of teenagers. I never had been in one before so I ventured forward, and found the whole experience absolutely electrifying, in a good way. I was buzzing for the next day or so! Sadly, I haven’t been in a position since then to enjoy a moshpit, and could be getting a little too old now (but never say never!).

Somehow I don’t think the author of Desiderata is speaking against that kind of experience. That was noisy alright, but it was fun, it was an experience, not a lifestyle. But what if we were caught up in the clamour of life, all or most of the time?

And that’s the phrase I think is important – ‘caught up’. Let’s find and hold on to our inner peace, our inner strength and carry that with us wherever we go. Rather than be caught up with everything around us, first of all be true to who we are, so that even if we (like me) soak up the energy and bustle and become energised by it, we’re not finding our core strength from that, we’re not lost in it all.

Its so easy to lose our sense of self and our sense of direction. Who are you when you are alone? I’m not talking about being a hermit – we are social beings after all. But each of us needs a core self, one that is not dependent on, or lost in, our environment. I think that many of us, through our insecurities, don’t know who we are, and as a result react to things around us, or get caught up in the moment. Hence the haste and lack of peace.

In holding on to our sense of self, we become less rattled and more able to thrive in any environment. We’re not overwhelmed by what is going on around us.

And that leads us to the second part of the quote – “remember what peace there may be in silence”. I know I struggle with silence. I feel like I need to do something (even watch a crappy movie! – see one of my earlier blogs). My wife doesn’t. Sometimes I see her just staring at the backyard from our living room (our backyard is nothing special, but when the lawn is mowed, on a sunny day it’s quite lovely). Or she sits outside in the sun doing nothing in particular.

I have to read, or watch, or do, or sleep. Perhaps I should change the words “have to” to “choose to”. I don’t “have to”, but I don’t know how to do nothing. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this (am I? What do you think?). I know I measure myself far too much by what I achieve or how well I do things – one could argue that I am caught up in “the noise and the haste”. It certainly feels like it often enough – no peace for my soul.

That doesn’t mean I’m never happy, or never relaxed. I’m probably happy often enough, but I’m definitely not often relaxed, and it would be nice to be more so.

So I look at the first line of “Desiderata” and say “Yes please”. The problem is knowing how to do it. Maybe the bit about becoming comfortable with silence is a good place to start (but how do you do that? – any suggestions?) So thank you Desiderata. I need to hear this.