The Lessons of the Desiderata
By Karen Nelson, M.A.
The Desiderata© was written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann. Mr. Ehrmann was born in the 19th century to German immigrants to the United States. He earned a baccalaureate degree in English from De Pauw University and later studied philosophy and law at Harvard University. He was known as a poet, and the most famous prose poem he wrote was The Desiderata (Latin for things desired). The poem was very popular, as I recall, in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I remember being very impressed with it at the time. Its popularity seemed to fade after a time, and I forgot all about it.
Then, a while ago, it was mentioned by Morgan Freeman on Oprah Winfrey’s Master Class. I remember feeling impressed with it years ago but couldn’t rightly explain why it was forgotten. So, I pulled it up online and copied it to my computer. I was impressed all over again. Each stanza has a kernel of wisdom for living. So, for the following two weeks, I began memorizing it one stanza at a time (or what I defined as a stanza). In my configuration, there were fourteen stanzas…some longer than others. I am determined to never again forget The Desiderata. And, I wanted to re-introduce it or introduce it to anyone who would listen. So, for two weeks, I tweeted each stanza. I did not call it The Desiderata in my tweets but did note the author each time. I believe others of my generation can re-connect with Mr. Ehrmann’s wisdom while members of younger generations may learn from it anew. I have learned that many people of my generation have a vague recollection of The Desiderata while a younger generation finds it beautiful just as we did.
I cannot speak for anyone else here, but perhaps my musings might inform yours. A friend asked me why I felt the need to memorize this small tome. I quipped, “Well, I know now that there is nothing wrong with my memory except that I can’t recall why I needed to memorize it!” When I re-read The Desiderata, I found that certain stanzas spoke personally to me while others seemed to speak to my impressions about certain people in my circle. I do not recall this individualization in my earlier experience of it. I am hoping that as this experience of the The Desiderata has opened a learning experience for me, then writings such as this may bring your lessons into sharper focus as well.
“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
In this day and age, there tends to be a lot of silence that is not peaceful. Recently, I was in a restaurant and observeded a luncheon with four people. The only silence that seemed to happen was while everyone was checking their phones for messages and texts. Occasionally, one person would share something amusing that someone had sent. I sat there just observing, thinking. I realized that, if I'd been a part of that group, I would have taken a text or message as a way of distraction, and I do not need to be distracted from life or from myself. THAT is the peace one can find in silence. These days, even people who claim to know better, take the time to meditate. Don’t get me wrong…there is nothing bad about meditation. However, if you have to set aside time from your busy life to re-connect with yourself through meditation, then, don’t you think there might be an issue? Why, in God’s name, aren’t YOU the most important person in your life? I maintain if it’s a duty, then there is no peace within one’s self.
“As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.”
Wow. “Without surrender”…this, I thought, was MY stanza. I was raised to be a fighter – I’m sure my sisters would agree since they were all older than I by five and a half and more years. The trick is to not surrender. This, I find, tends to be difficult for women especially. Women need to assert their needs and desires. The opposite end result of this stanza seems to be, you cannot be on good terms with someone who demands surrender. Women tend to want and need connection with others and sometimes give up their integrity in order to maintain connection. I credit my mother and my sisters for the inner strength I developed as a female child growing up in the U. S. They all challenged me in myriad ways and provided models for observation and learning. Early on in my life, it was more about the fight to avoid surrender than it was about finding common ground for good terms. Maturity and a lot of psychotherapy gradually brought me to looking for common ground whenever possible as a place where I could find connection and maintain integrity. I do not recall that this stanza resonated with me as strongly in the early 70’s as it does today. I have confronted more challenges in the last year or so than I had in all of my growing-up years. Nevertheless, it was those years and experiences that gave me a foundation for this new growth.
“Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.”
Growing up, there was a part of me (admittedly a small part) that worried about how much I did not know. I learned how to generate an opinion and to express it even when it was uninformed or, simply, made up out of the knowledge I did have. At around eight years old, my mother, who loved to read poetry out loud to my sisters and I, asked me for my “opinion” about an e.e. cummings poem. Just asking me for my opinion seemed monumental to me. Still, it was an eight-year-old’s opinion.
It took a lot of practice for me to learn how to say, “I don’t know.” Being ignorant is being without knowledge, and being without knowledge is being without power. This idea fueled my desire to be educated beyond secondary school. I learned to love learning. There will always be something else to learn.
My mother was very intolerant of the plaintiff cry, “I’m bored!” And I found boredom excruciatingly painful. At around age ten, I decided for myself that I was never, ever going to be bored again. This also fueled my drive for education. I’m still learning. Now, I mostly learn about myself and do so, I think, without hubris and ego. I do this because I was fortunate enough to find people throughout my life who listened to my story, who saw potential even when I couldn’t see it.
“Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”
This has been a difficult one for me because some of the most vibrant, attractive and smart people in the world come across as loud and aggressive in public. I love most music and connect mostly with rock and roll. Rock music has a tendency to sound loud and aggressive. For me, it wasn’t this aspect that attracted me to it. I connected with groups or soloists whose songs resonated with me: the sound along with the lyrics. So, I have spent a lot of time watching and listening to rock stars away from their concert venues. Many seem contemplative and reserved. I also drew the line at heavy metal and punk rock. To me, those two were loud and aggressive for nothing else but the sake of being loud and aggressive. It was similar to early live-performances of some comedians swearing up a blue storm just to get a rise out of people. It felt manipulative.
I’ve decided that this stanza must be taken as written: avoid loud AND aggressive persons; not just loud and not just aggressive people. People tend to get loud when they feel unheard. People tend to act aggressively when they’re frightened. Persons who are loud and aggressive seem frustrated with life and demanding surrender and all of the attention for themselves alone.
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
This quote suggests that comparing yourself to others is not about identifying one’s self as an individual and separate from “the other.” Often it is about keeping score in some kind of race for success or notoriety. Keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians, whichever is your neighbor) is truly unhelpful. Not only will there always be “greater and lesser persons than yourself,” but each person has a different set of experiences as well as congenital propensities. You and I can never really know what it is like living in another person’s shoes, seeing, experiencing life from that perspective. All one can do is seek to understand another person’s experience. Even that is fraught with problems since your own filters will always be there coloring the lessons of life.
So, it seems that one's intent behind any comparison is likely to determine if one becomes vain and bitter or not. Notice, Mr. Ehrmann does not prescribe never comparing any more than he states it will always lead to vanity and bitterness.
"Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your career however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time."
It may not be healthy to live entirely in the past or in the future. Take the time to be present to yourself, to what you do and what you've done. Then, take pleasure in your vision for the future even if you're not sure how you will get there. Your career represents the path you've taken to get to where you are. It is something no one can ever take away from you. Mr. Ehrmann wrote The Desiderata just two years before the big stock market crash of 1929. I do not know what effect the crash and the subsequent depression had on him, but if Mr. Ehrmann took his own advice, he survived it well. He lived until September, 1945. He was in his seventies when he died. Either way, the next stanza fits very well.
"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 realistic and be realistic. Nothing we encounter in life is either black or white. As the book indicates, there are at least fifty shades of grey! And which shade is entirely up to you! In fact, consider: as one looks at shades from white to black, there is NO clear deliniation between one shade and the next. It is only when one sees the opposites together that deliniation appears.
If you find yourself in the midst of someone's trickery, be open to that so you may extricate yourself.
When you start out trusting people 100%, then watch for their intentions to surface. They always will. Sometimes their intentions will be good for you and sometimes not. And, sometimes, their intentions will have nothing to do with you! Draw a line in the sand (if you need to) where your expectations of other's behavior still maintains your integrity and care for yourself. Beyond that point, there will not be enough trust to believe in the other. Keep in mind the psychological truism that we tend to find what we expect to find. If you tend to see someone as evil, then that is what you're likely to see. Conversely, if you only look for the good, then you are vulnerable to trickery. Keep your balance by noting the different shades. Allow yourself to re-evaluate that line in the sand.
"Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment, it is as perennial as the grass."
It can be a tall order to be yourself and not pretend that you like a person. Some parents have been known to encourage their children (especially young children) to give an adult a hug or a kiss even when the child feels shy or scared. I suspect that the parent who does this isn't aware of the message this gives the child: your feelings are not as important as the feelings of this adult. This is one of the ways in which we learn to hide ourselves from others and, frequently, from the self. How do you figure out who you are?
One way we do this is by how others treat us. How others treat us might be related to how they perceive us and our behavior. There is a so-called reality show on television wherein one character is always shown as either stupid or sociopathic (without ethics). He is treated as such by the other characters on the show. Now, this person is not a child. Nevertheless, there may be subconscious messages being taken in by him every time he is treated disrespectfully. The producers/director seem to believe this makes for good entertainment. It is hard to tell what effect this has on the person's self esteem. It must be pointed out that, for whatever reason, he accepts this role and plays the role. All parties have some responsibility in this: those who demand it, those who accept it and those who support it by watching.
Another way we figure out who we are is by our own internal dialogue. Knowing what are our values and then acting consistenly with those values provides a feedback loop to our brain and our personality. Cognitive dissonance results when our values do not match our behavior. Sociopaths are really good at ignoring the pain of this dissonance. Some mentally ill persons learn to reject earlier values to match their current experience thus reducing the dissonance. This may be one explanation for recent school massacres (Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook). If this is so, it speaks volumes to rejecting bullying behavior.
When one allows others to choose one's values (whether it is accepting values or rejecting values), it becomes easy to be critical about love altogether. If you have a poorly defined sense of self, how could you accept being loveable? Even if you desparately want it, you'd likely never trust it. On the other hand, if you train yourself to ignore dissonace, then it is likely that you will also ignore love and its consequent vulnerability. Nevertheless, loving and being loved are the bases of the human social contract. As John Donne wrote, "No man is an island entire of itself." We are all part of the whole and are diminshed by the loss of any person.
"Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth."
This one has taken me longer to contemplate. Of course we all age, and, with age, we find there are things we either can no longer do or "shouldn't" do. I guess I'm not sure that the "counsel of the years" is only about giving up youthful activities. It seems to me to be about giving up old attitudes and mal-adjusted behaviors.
I am old, but I'm NOT old! I still ride a bicycle from time to time. I have play dates with friends. My favorite performer is P!nk. And, I'm still learning new things about myself and about the world. That all feels young. I want to believe that these kinds of things will keep me feeling young.
When I look back to my childhood and remember what "old" looked like to me (my grandparents), I saw one who was stubbornly stuck in her ways, intolerant of new thinking and new attitudes. When she died, my grandmother was only eleven years older than I am now. The other grandparent was bent over with horrible arthritis for the last ten years of his life. There was much he physically could no longer do. However, he sought to understand others and tolerated much younger beliefs and attitudes. He was eighty when he died living three and a half years after his wife's death.
I find myself really resisting this one. I do not want to be like my grandmother or feel the constant pain my grandfather experienced. The future scares me. Holding onto some of "the things of youth" seems one way to challenge my perception of "old." So, while I have some pain in my shoulder and creaks and crackling in most of my joints, I refuse to give up on myself and my body. I "walkercise" several times per week for at least an hour and a half each time.
My question is this: what shall I give up from my youth? Well, in the last year I've given up what feels like a lot. I've given up driving. I've given up work/career. I've given up manufactured sugar and sugar substitutes. I've given up smoking. I changed my eating habits. I've given up fighting out. I've given up my self-definition: I will no longer express a need to be heroic. Recently I received an email that spoke to an issue with my former employer and the sender's irritation around that issue. In the past, I would have found a way to feed the irritation by finding agreement. I didn't have enough information to do this and asked for more information. Nevertheless, my response was reasoned and reasonable rather than irritated or irritating. I am done with that part of my life. It truly no longer serves me.
Now, I strive to be balanced with all things. Its a work in prorgess. Some persons avoid the things that "triggered" them in the past. I choose to overcome. Maya Angelou once wrote, "You can tell a lot about a person by how he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights." She never advocated avoiding the things that might lead to anger or frustration. She did advocate keeping perspective and balance.
"Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself."
Note that Mr. Ehrmann does not prescribe how to nurture strength of spirit. I suggest that some practice that feeds your sense of well being in the world based in your values and beliefs will do. To the extent that your values and beliefs are solidly in place for you (no matter what others think or believe and no matter what happens), you will find it easier to rebound. When one does this, then catastrophizing is unnecessary. I used to believe that my own brand of "pessimistic optimism" was the best way to protect myself: if I could imagine the worst, then I would already have lived it and feel comfortable when the worst happened. If the worst did not happen, then that was icing on the cake. It took a long time to understand that this was a very bitter cake that held no nutritional value for me or the world. I still occasionally revert back to this strategy. I am able more quickly now to be gentle with myself and let it go.
"You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here."
There is nothing one needs to do but be! What a concept in this post-puritanical culture. Do the trees and stars struggle with self esteem? Do they strive to be useful? No. They just are. If a tree provides shade or fruit or nuts that nurture other beings, it does so without seeking approval. If the stars provide light and navigational guidance in the dark, they do so without fanfare. They remind us that our concerns are miniscule compared to the vastness of the universe. It is entirely up to the other to find advantage in their existence or not. The trees and the stars do not fret about it either way. Your right to be here is solely ensconced in the fact that you are here. Do what you love and it will find you (to paraphrase a TV commercial). You can be a cloud or you can be a rainbow. Both can be beneficial to you.
"And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."
This is a statement of optimism and faith. It is optimistic in that one can accept events for what they are, for what we make of them. It is important to take responsibility for your own understanding of events. Nothing you see, hear or feel is independent of you and your experience. Your filters color everything you perceive. In other words, the universe is unfolding in the way you believe it is unfolding. It is what you make it.
I find it is a statement of faith in human nature and our ability to control our responses to any event. Once you discover that you have this control, it is more likely than not that you will use it over and over again.
"Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your dreams and aspirations in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace with your soul."
I thought it extraordinary that, in the 1920's, Max Ehrmann had the courage to publish this statement of "God, whatever you conceive Him to be." There are today areas of the world where this statement would cause consternation. How much more so in the 1920's! Still, as someone pointed out to me, there was a movement of spiritualism and a movement of intelligencia in the 20's that might have informed the statement. It would have been even more controversial if Mr. Ehrmann had not used any gender specific pronoun. In one spiritual tradition that I have studied, the Creator is defined as "all things and no thing." "It" would be a more inclusive pronoun and one that speaks to the ineffable nature of such a creator. So, how can anyone be at peace with the ineffable, the unknowable? I suggest that one can do this by being humble enough to admit to the limitations of human nature and the human brain. There are some things, perhaps many things, we just will never know. Be at peace with that.
It is likely that humility will also lay the way to keeping peace with your soul (whatever you conceive that to be!). I think Mr. Ehrmann may have suggested in this passage that your dreams and aspirations come from the soul. I don't know this for certain. I can only say that. for me, there is a part of me that feels soarful when I utilize my talents in a pleasing way. That which soars, I believe, is my soul. I have a talent for dreaming while asleep as well as while awake. These days, I aspire to plant seeds and take pleasure in tilling the soil, watering the planted seeds and then moving on. Like Johnny Appleseed, if an apple tree grows, it grows. If it doesn't, then it doesn't. Painting in oils or watercolor satisfies this aspiration. This blog post satisfies it as well. Will someone buy my paintings? I don't know. Will someone read this post? I don't know. If someone reads it, will he/she get anything from it? I don't know. That is up to the reader.
"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy."
Beyond hide nothing from yourself, there is nothing more I need say about this stanza. It stands alone and speaks clearly and concisely to all our knowledge, experiences and hopes.
Karen Nelson, M.A.