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Desiderata-"things devoutly to be wished"

I have often thought how remarkable it is that certain works catch on and take on a life of their own, and in time, they can have a deep influence on people and life. I think a very good example of that is the piece of prose simply known as ‘Desiderata’ (one definition of it is ‘things devoutly to be wished’). It consists of just over 300 words and many people have talked about how it has inspired and shaped their life.

It was written by a German Methodist, Max Ehrmann, around 1927, but not published until around WWII when he had settled in the USA- and although urban myth suggested it is of older (17th century) vintage it isn’t but was written to help people. It has been handed out by churches and psychologists to help their patients with its gentle and profound message. I find it continues to speak vividly to us today and which, I suggest is a splendid guide for a fruitful and peaceful life:

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 to the dull and ignorant for they too have their story”.

These opening lines set out in simple terms how to find peace and that we need to avoid reacting to the “noise and haste” of our lives but rather seek out those places of quietness, stillness, and refuge. We should aim to  be nice to those we meet, to hear their stories but also for us to speak our own truth- but in a way that is not loud or difficult to understand.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons for they are vexations to the spirit. If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter, for there will always be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans”

I suspect we have all had experiences with some people who seem to sap our spirit and energy, and in modern terms are ‘toxic’ to us- Max Ehrmann is saying that we should avoid them for our own spiritual and mental health. Don’t compare yourself with others as that is unhelpful and can tempt you in thinking that you are less (or greater!) a person than you really are. Also enjoy your successes in life- cherish and embrace them, rather than continually making plans for another project or experience.

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”.

I think this part of the prose is important especially today. As individuals, we, for understandable reasons, think the best of people and can easily ‘believe their truth’ but of course as Max Ehrmann reminds us “..the world is full of trickery”. There are scams left, right and centre, and you only have to look at the awful tragedy of sexual abuse (and its cover up) in the Church of England and elsewhere, to realise that as a society we have to be more aware of the dark side of human nature and that means on occasions we have to be less trusting. I think a ‘healthy scepticism’ in life can be very beneficial- and a life saver for the vulnerable.

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 as many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet’ got it right when he said “To thine own self be true”. There is only ever one of us as we are all unique-God wants you to be you- not someone trying to imitate someone else. Be open to Love and avoid fearing the worst.

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars and you have a right to be here. And whether or not is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be a peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. Whatever your labours 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 and strive to be happy”.

In bringing ‘Desiderata’ to its climax, Max Ehrmann encourages us to be disciplined but gentle individuals and to realise our worth on this earth. That we should have faith in God that life is happening all around us and we should in a sense, ‘say yes to our universe’, to accept that rather than fight it. We need to be at peace with God and ourselves and aim to be content.

I used to have a poster of ‘Desiderata’ on my bedroom wall, and it meant (and means) a lot to me. I hope it will guide you too.

Supporting each other

I am currently reading ‘A Chelsea Concerto’ which is one of the most evocative memoirs of the London ‘Blitz’ during WWII written by Frances Faviell, who was an exceptionally brave Red Cross volunteer at the time.

In it she writes about how important being encouraged was during that time when Britain was alone and had some of its darkest ever days. She talks about the impact that Winston Churchill’s famous “I have nothing to offer  you but blood, toil, tears and sweat” & “You ask what is our aim? I’ll answer it in one word: VICTORY” speech in May 1940 had on the nation. Frances Faviell said the reaction to Churchill’s speech was immediate:

“’So assured and confident was the voice of the man who had taken over leadership of the country that a great wave of elation swept over us. ‘Blood, toil, tears and sweat’ appealed somehow to the mood of the public and the words themselves caught the public fancy. …The single word ‘Victory’ gave the man in the street a simple definite aim, just as the genius who used it meant it too”.

The end result of course was that the British public were galvanised like never before or since and stood firm during a period where like France, and the rest of Europe, we could have buckled under.

So we can see the huge impact that being encouraged and supported can have on us individually but also as a community- which is why as a Lent Act of Kindness it is so important.

One of the things I learnt working in HR with different kinds of organisations was that the most successful and compassionate ones are not the ones who either offer their people the biggest cash bonuses, the greatest promotions, or those who simply order their people to achieve things- or else. The really successful and effective ones are where they treat their people as valued individuals and people that matter to them.

If you can make people -whether it is someone that works for you or a friend or neighbour- feel appreciated, valued and someone who makes a difference to things, then amazing, wonderful things can happen. People on the whole want to be acknowledged for either what they do or who they are, we all want to be loved- and that is what such support and encouragement really is- a way to show your genuine love for the people in our lives.

How do we do that though? I heard a recent church sermon on this issue recently which highlighted the importance of having some kind of relationship with people, even if to begin with, things may not initially improve. Like all human interaction, you need to work at it, to be interested in them, to understand someone and to truly listen to them. In so many cases, relationships break down (or don’t even start) because people feel they are not listened to. We can so often be selfish even if we don’t realise it at the time. We can all gain so much by being open to what a neighbour or friend has to say to us- and often all they want is for us to listen to them in a non-judgemental way. Matthew 7:1 is clear that “Judge not, that you may not be judged.”

So as we go about our daily lives both this week and beyond, we should ourselves be encouraged that all of us have a power that we have yet to truly unlock, so that we can do our best. And that starts with a conversation. Who are you going to start listening to today?

Seeking Justice

As part of Lent (the Christian run up to Easter) a number of people are focussing on the issue of seeking justice. Justice tends to be inexplicably linked to the issue of fairness. But what is fairness? That was firmly brought home to me some years ago when I heard someone say: “Is it fair to eat a beefburger? If you are desperate for food you will think it is very fair, but if you are the animal who has to give up its life for you to eat, then it is very unfair”.

Now the person in question wasn’t trying to be smart or clever but was making the point that quite often the idea of what is just or fair can depend on your individual perspective or point of view. One person’s freedom fighter can be another’s terrorist for example.

That said, we all know that there are things in this world which are without doubt clearly an injustice or unfair. The genocides of the Holocaust, those carried out in Cambodia, in Rwanda, under Stalin and going on now as we speak, of the Rohingya people in Myanmar (Burma) are unjust to anyone’s view, and no matter what reparations are made, they are crimes against humanity and God.

Closer to home there are innumerable personal injustices that people have had to endure. I think of the families of Jonathan Ball (aged 3) and Tim Parry (aged 12) who were killed in the Warrington IRA bombings in 1993 and to this day no individuals have been brought to justice for their deaths. I think also of Marie and William McCourt whose daughter Helen was murdered 32 years ago. Her killer was recently released from prison but to this day he refuses to say where he hid her body, thus preventing any real closure or burial by her family.

These are just dreadful stories, and I don’t think anyone can imagine the nightmare that these families have had to live through where no sense of justice has prevailed and in all likelihood may never happen in this world.

So how do we cope with these kind of global and personal tragedies where injustice haunts your being? I think there are two things that can help to sustain us.

The first is a recognition that whilst we desperately want to right a wrong it is ultimately down to God to judge people (Hebrews 10:30) and that in time He will do that, and we cannot act as an avenger no matter how justified we feel. We should not act as if we are Charles Bronson or Liam Neeson in a Death Wish or Taken film. Be assured that in the end all wrongs will be righted.

The second is probably the greatest blessing we have which is Forgiveness. As horribly difficult as it is, the reality is that we are called to forgive, and justice is not a requirement in order to forgive someone. Jesus’ command is clear. When Peter asked him: “Lord, if my brother keeps on sinning against me, how many times do I have to forgive him? Seven times?”, Jesus replies “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22).

However, forgiveness is amongst the hardest acts you can perform- quite often it is the very last thing you want to do in case it somehow reduces the severity of someone’s or something’s actions against you or others. However, I don’t think you can truly heal unless you forgive. As the old proverb goes: "the person who seeks revenge should dig two graves".

Sometimes however, the offence in question is so grave that you feel you just cannot come to forgive someone for what they have done. If that is you, I would say that what can help is to do two things. First, forgive yourself for not being to forgive and second, pray for that other person-as praying for them can come easier than to forgive them.

At other times genuine good can come out of an awful tragedy. Again, I think of the death of those boys Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry. Two of the parents (Colin and Wendy) wanted to understand why

their boys died and went to visit people in Northern Ireland as well as the Republic of Ireland to find out how  people were trying to work for peace there. As a result, they set up a charity (‘Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Peace Foundation’) and eventually a Peace Centre to assist and help victims of terrorism and they now “campaign for peace knowing that sadly conflict is inevitable but violent conflict is not.”

Good will always overcome evil.


Keeping the Faith

Someone I know regularly says to me “when will it all end?”, and of course he is talking about the lockdown, and I tend to offer my take on the fact that 11 months or so on and ‘we are getting there’- infections, hospitalisations and deaths are thankfully all sharply down- and around 20% of our population have now received the vaccine. This is all great news of course but it still means that for now we must continue “Hands. Face. Space.”

However, the continued lockdown is still a real burden on peoples’ lives especially on their already fragile mental health, and at this time I think we need to look towards those great people of faith who had to endure similar or worse conditions, who got through them and what their experience and sacrifice can mean to us here today in 2021.

For me you need look no further than the great man that was Noah (Genesis 5-9). He was the ninth descendant of Adam and Eve and a truly great patriarch who was said to be “a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9).

As we know at this time -which was probably in what we now know as the Bronze age (maybe 4,000 BC or so)-God saw that the earth was so corrupt and filled with violence that He decided to destroy it and all of mankind, and to begin again with Noah and his family.

But that required Noah to build an Ark for him, his family, and the earth’s animals to survive in, whilst the world perished around them. Now you can imagine that when he and his family started to build this incredible vessel that he must have been mocked, ridiculed, and declared mad or worse and at a conservative estimate it is believed that it took them around 70-75  years to build the ark. Imagine the kind of things that would have been said of him and to him during those decades. Yet he persisted because he was a man of faith and knew what God said would happen, would come to pass. In fact, you can now get t-shirts with the inscription “They thought Noah was a conspiracy theorist. And then it began to rain.” However, Noah was no conspiracy theorist, but was a great man of faith who did what God asked of him.

The finished Ark must have been a magnificent vessel just to look at let alone be on, but we know from Genesis that it was 450 feet long, 75 foot wide and 45 foot high. To give you an idea of its size its length was greater than the height of ‘Big Ben’, was around twice the size of a Boeing 747 plane and inside it could accommodate 17 Olympic size swimming pools or over 125,000 sheep!

However, what is the connection between the current lockdown and Noah? I think it is that most theologians have come to the view that the Bible’s account of the Ark is that Noah and his family and the animals were on the Ark for around 370 days or so. Our lockdown is, as I write this, around 330 days and counting, but there are vastly important differences between the two experiences.

Guess what? the Ark did not have Wi-Fi, there was nothing to download during their year plus voyage waiting for the seas to recede- nothing to view or to listen to apart from natural scenes, to take away what must have been excessive boredom at times. Although the Ark was a 3 storey vessel it is believed to have had only 1 window and either a roof or basic skylight so you can imagine with all the animals on board it’s sanitary conditions would have been very basic, and can you imagine the smell!

Noah and his family were not young people either. Noah was 600 years old when the Ark was built, his sons were around 100 years old themselves, so these were not young adventurers . The faith they must have had waiting for that moment when the winds and sea would die down to allow them to encounter some kind of land to renew the earth must have been extraordinary and also very lonely as they were the only humans left in the world.

In comparison with our lockdown of getting on for 12 months now, although the demands and restrictions on us have been very significant, we have -unless self- isolating- always been able to take some exercise outside, to talk to people either in a socially distanced way or by telephone or via the likes of Zoom. Through the modern miracle of broadband and Wi-Fi we can pretty much listen to or view almost anything (maybe too much?) whilst we await for more people to be vaccinated and for the time when we can finally return to some kind of normality.

Noah and his family can show us the way to get through this current crisis- they had huge reserves of patience and faith, and finally when Noah sent a dove out across the oceans it returned with an olive leaf telling him at last that land was nearby. God rewarded them and mankind with his covenant sealed by the magical rainbow in the sky and if we keep our patience and faith, we too will get there.