I recently mentioned the poem Desiderata (see post “Hippy Chick”, Sept ’17) and the words have been echoing around my brain ever since. 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. The author, Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Indiana, wrote in his diary “I should like to leave a humble gift – a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods.” I take this gift very personally and thank him for it, for down through the years of my life the gentle words of his poem have comforted and inspired me. More, I have to say, than any amount of childhood catechism learning, where I was told that “God made me to know him, to love Him and to serve him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next”. Even as a child, my inner response was always “WHY???” “How do you know that???”
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t at all conscious of this resistance, no rebellion here! In fact I was a good Catholic girl, going to Mass, making my First Communion, all that. I remember the May procession every year, when most of the school (St Peter’s Primary, Partick) would dutifully troop out of the school gate, down the road and round the corner to the Church, carrying a statue of Our Lady and singing hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was a flower girl one year, scattering petals from a basket in the path of said statue and singing along as fervently as anyone. I can still easily bring to mind the words of those May hymns, sung with such pure devotion as a child. Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, queen of the angels and queen of the May… and For ’tis the month of Mary, the lovely month of May.
Of course, understanding becomes more sophisticated as you grow older and start to realise that devotion to the Mother of God is just one manifestation of humanity’s deep innate desire to find meaning in life and make sense of the world; a longing that seems to have been with us right from our earliest origins when we expressed ourselves in cave art and developed burial rites which displayed respect for the dead and a belief in the afterlife. From these simple roots came the profusion of religions in existence in the world today. Many believe that their religion is the one true faith, and despite the fact that all religions preach peace and love in one way or another, it has been used to justify countless human conflicts throughout history.
We can’t ALL be right…can we? I turn again to Desiderata: Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. Undoubtedly there is reassurance and comfort in following the religion of our parents, in respecting the customs of our community – this is how we start to understand our place in the world. But perhaps that’s what it should be – a starting point for a lifetime of continuous growth in our understanding of ourselves and other people. And that may or (scarily) may not involve following the religion of our fathers. But the way I figure it, if God made me, then he also made whatever doubts and questions I find within my brain and will understand my conclusions about what I believe and how to live my life.
What I like so much about Max Erhmann’s “humble” poem is that it doesn’t lay down the law about how to behave, as so many dogmas do. Rather it’s an invitation to look into yourself, to find the best of yourself, and it understands what you might have to contend with as you strive to do so. Although it was written in 1927 when he was 55 years old, it didn’t become well known until the 1960’s and 70’s, when someone made a poster which was an instant hit. There were even spoken recordings by Leonard Nimoy (yes, Mr Spock!) and Les Crane, both of which reached the top 20. Just type “Desiderata” into YouTube if you want to see them for yourself .
I used to read these words over and over again (displayed on a teatowel I kept hanging in the kitchen), and somehow they have always helped me to put the world, and myself, to rights. I don’t always manage to live up to everything, but if you ever want to know what makes me tick you could do worse than read this simple, but not simplistic, poem. These are my “things to be desired”.
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 the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and 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 with your soul.With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.