The gentle wisdom of 'Desiderata'

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Go placidly amid the noise and the 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 to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or 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 [Her or It] to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. 

Be cheerful. 

Strive to be happy.

 

Many of you probably recognize this. Many of you probably do not.

It is titled, "Desiderata" (Latin for "things desired") and was written by Max Ehrmann of Terre Haute, Indiana. In that pre-internet era, "going viral" was a much more lumbering process. Ehrmann wrote the untitled poem in the 1920s and distributed it as a Christmas card in the 1930s (with the title). After Ehrmann died in 1945, his wife published the piece in a book of his poems (1948). But people began to distribute an unattributed version: A psychiatrist to his patients, a pastor to all his congregants. Copyright lapsed and the poem entered the public domain, facilitating its spread and turning it briefly into a cultural phenomenon.   

Those of you who recognize it are probably children of the 1960s and '70s. That's when I encountered it, likely on a poster. We were big on posters back then. The text sounded ancient and contemporary at the same time, and I don't remember Max Ehrmann's name being attached to the versions I saw. But I found it oddly appealing. The style reminded me of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. It sounded profound, but I was skeptical and half-dismissed it as "hippie hyperbole."

Les Crane, a radio announcer and talk show host, recorded a spoken-word version in 1971 and won a Grammy for it. He had a deep, resonant voice and that show-biz quality probably intensified my skepticism. But I was skeptical of most things in the '70s, that peculiar decade between the exhausting turbulence of the 1960s and the conservative backlash of the 1980s.

"Desiderata" seemed to come and go quickly, and I didn't encounter it again until a week ago Sunday, one of those rare spring days, when I accepted Eloise LaPaglia's invitation to share the upstairs porch overlooking Austin Gardens and found a copy framed on a wall in her apartment.

I was charmed again, but for different reasons, now with 40 years of lived experience under my belt. It seemed simpler, mellower, humbler, more down to earth. "Go placidly" resonates more in your 60s than with 20-somethings. At least in my case it does.

Ehrmann's advice is gently two-sided. 

"Listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story." A healthy reminder.

"Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit." My, how timely. Who could he possibly be referring to these days?

"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." Nothing groundbreaking here, just solid heartland wisdom.

Brace yourself for misfortune, Ehrmann advised, "but do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness." Or isolation. We certainly have a society plagued by "dark imaginings" these days.

"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world," the glass being ever half empty and half full.

But my favorite words, then and now, are these:

"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."

Some might take issue with that last line. Is the universe unfolding as it should if humankind is not unfolding as it should, if we endanger and destroy our very home in the universe?

Maybe the cure can be found in the preceding line. If we recognize that we are no less (and no more) than the trees and stars and affirm our rightful place in the cosmos, how might things turn out differently? 

A great awakening began in the 1960s and '70s, and continues to this day, despite every effort by our dark imaginings to oppose and crush it. But awakenings cannot be stopped.

So it wouldn't hurt to read Desiderata again every once in a while.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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