Ponderings on
Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata"

tom walsh


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

Peace among the crowd is a beautiful goal to strive for, and a great gift when you accomplish it.  Let everyone else hurry and make sure that everyone knows what they think; in the grand scheme of life, getting your two cents' worth in isn't always important.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.

I'm very glad that Ehrmann adds the words "without surrender," for once you try to get along with other people by letting them have their own way or dominate you, you lose a great deal of your own inner peace, and the relationship is no longer balanced, but destructive.  It's important to get along with others, but it's also important for them to try to get along with you. 

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen
to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Speak softly and clearly, and you'll be surprised at how powerful your spoken word can be.  Always speak the truth, and you'll never fear anyone's examination of your words;  I can't tell you how much I've learned about life from the most unexpected sources, from the people I expected to be able to offer me nothing.  

It's very humbling when this happens, and very enlightening.  The rude and the angry and the obnoxious also have much to teach, but we have to search harder to find it in their words and actions.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.

Yes, they are, but the hard part is balancing the idea that they're also human beings who deserve our love.  They can bring us down and keep us down, but the important thing to keep in mind is that they tend to need love and acceptance more than anyone else.  Which always results in the "what do I do?" dilemma. . . .

If you compare yourself with others, you may
become vain or bitter, for always there will
be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

So don't do it; you are you, and that's fine.  If you want to improve something about yourself, do so, but don't do it on anyone else's terms.  You may be pursuing something that isn't one of your greatest strengths, and then your own strengths will suffer from neglect.  There are many better writers than I, and many worse, but I don't worry about either group--I do my thing, and I try to improve it as I can, but I will never compare myself to Dickens or Tolstoy, for I'm not Dickens or Tolstoy.  I'm me, and unless I say what I want to say instead of what I think people want me to say, I'm not speaking my truth.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Give yourself credit--you've achieved many things.  Move on and work on other things, and don't fall into the "Glory Days" trap, but also keep in mind that you have done some pretty cool stuff.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

And if you keep interested in it, you'll strive to become better at it.  And the better you become at it, the more satisfaction you'll get from what you do.  And the more satisfaction you get, the more positive about your work you'll become.  And the more positive you become, the more interested in it you'll be. . . .

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.

It's great to trust people, but we must keep in mind that not everyone is trustworthy.  If we're cheated or swindled, let it be a lesson to us, and let us try not to let it happen again.  Yes, the world is full of people who want to hurt others and who want to trick others,

But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals and
everywhere life is full of heroism.

There are many more people in the world who love and who want to help others than people who hate and want to hurt others.  If you watch the news, you'll find this hard to believe.  If you keep your eyes and mind and heart open to the people around you every day, you'll find this an undeniable truth of life.

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.

Being yourself is one of the hardest things we can do, for we all want acceptance, yet being ourselves means that we risk not being accepted.  And sometimes we don't want to hurt someone, or we want something from someone, so it becomes very easy for us to pretend that we feel an affection that simply isn't there.  But then we get back to the truth, and to keeping to the truth; when we feign affection, we diminish our selves, and we set the other person up for great disappointment when he or she finds out just what we've done.

Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all
aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass.

Love is the ruling force of humanity, but until we accept this fact and live our lives as if it were true, love tends to be weak and impotent; once we live our lives with love as our most important focus, our lives and the lives of those around us are greatly enriched. 

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

Look, we're all going to get old.  There is such a thing as aging gracefully, and people who allow themselves to age tend to age the most gracefully, but those who try to hold on to their youth tend to come across as vain, sad, and a bit ridiculous--an unfortunate word, but very true.  Age gracefully by keeping active and taking care of yourself, but don't buy the fashions that 21-year-olds are wearing; buy what you like, and enjoy it.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield
you in sudden misfortune.

If your spirit is strong, you can make it through everything, and even more importantly, you can help others to get through their misfortunes.  Nurture your strength of spirit--work on it, search it out, exercise it, in the ways that you see as best for you.  Read.  Spend quiet time.  Listen to tape programs and good music.  Strength of spirit doesn't just happen--it has to be cultivated.

But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

"I am an old man and I have known a great many troubles," said Mark Twain, "but most of them have never happened."  Isn't that the way it is with most of our imaginings--all the things we think are going to turn out badly or hurt us or ruin us, that turn out to be very positive or even completely neutral, not affecting us one bit for bad or for good.  I wish I could have back some of the energy that I've spent worrying or fretting about some horrible problem of mine that turned out to be nothing.  

Beyond a wholesome discipline be gentle with yourself.

"I have met the enemy, and he is I."  That's a paraphrase of a line of Walt Kelly's in Pogo, and it's a truism that consistently hurts people.  We tend to hurt ourselves by being very harsh with ourselves, by judging ourselves by much higher standards than we would judge others with.  The trick I use to deal with this tendency in myself is to ask myself how I would react to someone else in the same situation--would I be harsh with judgment, or would I be encouraging and helpful?  And why would I treat myself worse than I would treat others?  It makes no sense at all to do so.

You are a child of the universe; no less than
the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.

One of my favorite lines in all of literature.  I am a child of the universe--what an awesome thought, and how true.  I belong here--this is my world to share with you and with everyone else.  I shouldn't feel out of place anywhere, and I know that everyone else has just as much a right to be here as I do.  I belong here, you belong here, the trees and the stars belong here, so let's make ourselves at home and go about making our home a wonderful place, to the best of our abilities. . . .

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt
the universe is unfolding as it should.

Another of my favorite lines--how much energy do we spend trying to make things unfold as we want them to unfold, because we think we see the best way for things to unfold.  Relax!  You don't know the best way, I don't, the politicians and religious leaders don't--the universe got along fine for billions of years without us here, so let's let it go about doing its thing, and we can focus on ours.

Therefore, be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.

Again, peace.  Peace with God is a great thing, something that can shelter us against any storm, that can hold us up in our weakest times, that can give us light in our darkest hours.  Don't look at God as an enemy or a judge or a boss--God is God, and He loves you, and he wants you to have peace in your hearts and minds and souls.  Let Him help you, and He will; fight against His help, and you'll reject it, but He won't stop trying to give you peace.  Relax, and take the peace.  That peace will help you more in life than anything else we have.

And whatever your labours and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul.

Peace.  Worth repeating.  Over and over.  A peaceful soul is a soul that can help others; a soul in turmoil is a soul that cannot help others.  Let life be confusing and noisy, but look at it as something that you don't need to be a part of.  Emerson said that a great man is a man who can keep "with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" in the midst of a crowd, and these words are among his most powerful.  Keep your peace--don't let the world steal it from you.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.

Yes, it is--a very beautiful world full of very beautiful people.  Never, ever forget that--there's so much more beauty than ugliness, and it's such a shame that our media focus on the ugliness so much.  The world is an awesome place, a marvelous place, an incredible place, though sometimes we look at it through filters of our own creation that tarnish it and make it look bland and dull and harmful.  It is a beautiful world, full of beautiful people.  Never doubt that, and your life will be richer.

Be careful.

Some versions have this as "Be cheerful," but I prefer the "be careful" version.  It's not nearly as important to be cheerful as it is to be careful, as we're not all cheerful people by nature.  "Careful," though, implies full of care, and that can be taken in more than one way.  I would rather be full of care in a sincere way than full of cheer if I'm not by nature a cheerful sort.

Strive to be happy.

It's all we can do, and if we keep our minds and hearts focused on this, we can accomplish this.  We can also learn how to help others to be happy.  The important word here, though, isn't the "happy," but the "strive."  Life is striving, for that keeps us busy with an objective in mind.  Strive to be happy, but remember how many people have told us that happiness is not a goal, but a by-product.  Strive to be happy by striving to be helpful to others, productive, and caring, and you'll find your happiness.


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