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.