My favourite poem is the famous “Desiderata” (Latin for things desired), written by Max Ehrmann in 1927.
I have a copy of the poem pinned up in my office cubicle and, every so often when I remember it’s existence, I scan the piece and certain parts stick out, lodging themselves in my heart. Every sentence is a gold mine of timeless wisdom, truth, and a reminder of things we should hold in our hearts and take with us throughout our days, weeks, months, and, dare I say, entire lives.
I’m sure a lot of you have seen and read it before. Apparently, it was widely circulated on posters starting in the 60s and 70s, though I only came across it about eight years ago. I thought I’d break it down and examine each section because each part, in my opinion anyway, has so much to teach us.
“Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
I’m not sure about you, but as an introvert, I try to avoid noise as much as possible. And rushing through life? Not for me. All of that drains me. And during the dumpster fire of 2020 (and continuing into 2021), I have found much peace through an increased and deepening meditation practice. Sitting in silence can bring so much ease to the craziness of the world right now. It allows us space to just breathe, and be, and remember what is really important.
“As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.”
I try my best to do this but, sometimes, it’s easier said than done. I try not to be Judgy McJudgerson, but I’m finding it increasingly difficult with the behaviours of certain portions of the human population right now (if I’m totally honest). In my personal life, though, I try to be as open and openhearted as possible with others.
“Speak your truth quietly and clearly;”
As mentioned, I’m fairly shy and introverted and, in the past, stayed quiet about…well, most things. But in the past few years, I’ve been learning to stand up for myself more and speak my truth. I think it’s something we all should aim to do.
Either speaking our truth outwardly, to others, letting them know where we stand, or even just internally, coming to a sense of who we are as human beings, living as authentically as possible in your own lives (because it’s the only life we have—our own). We aren’t (or shouldn’t be) living for other people.
“…and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.”
This is a part that always stands out for me. The “they too have their story” part. It’s an amazing reminder that we are all more connected, more the same, than we are separate. We are all the same species, after all, even if we have different backgrounds, opinions, and beliefs. We all have our stories, and we all deserve to be heard.
“Avoid loud and aggressive persons; they are vexatious to the spirit.”
Anyone else feel that this is (one of) the causes of fatigue they’ve been feeling over the pandemic? Because I sure do! I am finding this segment of our society to be vexatious and draining to my spirit. It’s not just Zoom fatigue. It’s people-fatigue—trying to wrap your head around how on earth can someone be like that?!
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
This is something I need to work on, and something I have been working on. I try not to compare myself to others…but, sometimes, I just can’t help it! It’s hard not to—when you have goals and aspirations, and you see others who have the goals and aspirations that you want but don’t yet have.
So this is always a great reminder to me—that there will always be people who are better than me, and some who are not in the same place as I am, and maybe some who, who knows, compare themselves to me and wish they could be in my shoes. Which is really quite humbling when you think of it like that.
“Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.”
This is something I struggle with, and I have to remind myself of sometimes—that I have had achievements in life, and I should be proud of them! (Why can’t I recognize this more?) And having a plan, having something to look forward to, especially in the challenging times of right now, is something to take pleasure in.
“Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.”
Again, this is a great reminder for me (and maybe for you too). My day job isn’t the most exciting (office work), but I am grateful to have it, especially when I know others do not. It is a real possession, and as I’ve said before, especially right now, with everything that the year we’d rather forget (aka 2020) has brought us.
“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.”
Don’t let it blind you to what virtue there is. That’s a difficult one—to still have some glimmer of hope after being scammed or led astray in some form. How can you not be tainted by a bad experience? But I guess one way to not be tainted is the reminder that there are still people being good and doing good and making the world a better place. Not everyone is Fagins‘ or Scrooges’.
“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.”
Be yourself. Two simple words but so difficult (at least for me!) to really determine what it means. I have a quote decal in my home yoga space that says, “In a world where you can be anything, be yourself.” This is really the journey that I am on and that I think all of us, ultimately, are. To discover who we are and how to love.
“Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.”
I wish I’d asked my mom certain things, things I never thought about, while she was around. I wish I could have her counsel now. And my grandma. And aunt. They are now all no longer with us. I still have my dad, though. But he’s …well, Dad, and I can’t talk to him about certain things!
As for gracefully surrendering the things of youth, I’m not sure—should we do that? Or should we try to protect any vestiges of our younger selves? I mean, yes, accept the wrinkles and the inevitable grey hairs; the physical trappings of youth we shouldn’t cling to unnecessarily, but beyond that, I think we should still aim for keeping a youthful heart.
“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.”
Strength of spirit. I imagine that this has helped you get through the pandemic as much as it has me.
And it’s true that things seem scarier and more overwhelming than they really are when we’re by ourselves, or when we’re just totally depleted and don’t have the strength to face the world. So we need to nurture our spirits with self-care, whatever that means for each of us.
“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”
This is the reminder of the decade for me. There have been so many times where I’ve told others online the same four words—be gentle with yourself. I just need to remember to be the same with me.
“You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”
This has always been my favourite quote in the poem. It’s just so full of wonder and awe. I’ve toyed for years with getting the part “no less than the trees and the stars” as a tattoo to remind myself that I am part of the entire universe. And yes, I do have a right to be here, thank you very much!
“And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
Is it saying that fate exists? Maybe; maybe not. The universe will do what it does, whether or not we wish it otherwise. It’s bigger than us.
“Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.”
I am not religious, so I don’t believe in any God of sorts, but I am learning to be at peace with however my life has unfolded and will continue to unfold.
“And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.”
Keep peace in your soul. I think this is something we all need to remember and be reminded of. No matter what happens in life, keep a peaceful heart (which is what my meditation practice and study of Buddhism is teaching me).
“With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”
The words “broken dreams” always reminds me of the painting “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Gottfried Heinlein, showing Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, and my perennial favourite, James Dean, in a cafe. Icons of their time relegated to, well, as the line says, sham, drudgery, and broken dreams.
But I love that the poem ends with it is still a beautiful world—a reminder that we should strive for happiness and make the best of whatever life throws at us.
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 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.