Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Reconsider the Desiderata


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.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

You may have had the writing above hanging on your wall at one point in your life - and you may have been under the impression that it was centuries old. Not so! Specifically, you may have believed that the original had been found in Old St. Paul's Church in Baltimore in 1692. Also false! The prose was in fact penned in 1927 by the American poet and attorney pictured above, Max Ehrmann (1872-1945). Ehrmann worked in law and business (his family's overall factory) before he began writing full-time at age 40. He penned this comment, which seems to refer directly to the Desiderata:
"I would like, if I could, to leave to my country a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods. My life is spent in a time and among a people of commercial interest, with its attending selfishness, cruelty and ostentation. I would reclaim a little of the heart of man, infuse some gentleness into the stern ethics of trade, and make life the supreme art instead of acquisition. If, in an hour of noble elation, I could write a bit of glorified prose that would soften the stern ways of life, and bring to our fevered days some courage, dignity and poise - I should be well content."
"Desiderata," which translates to "desired things," achieved fame only after Ehrmann's death. He may have foreseen such a thing, having written in his journal, "Perhaps even when I am dead, some browser in libraries will come upon me, and, seeing that I was not altogether unworthy, will resurrect me from the dust of things forgotten." The verse has been quoted by American advice columnist Ann Landers (1918-2002), printed in hundreds of thousands of greeting cards, and reproduced by the millions on plaques and posters - often without attribution. The Desiderata's popularity also received a boost when it was found after his death on the bedside table of American politician Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), who had intended to use it in a Christmas card.

Regarding the prevailing idea that the verse originated in the 17th c., scholars point out that some of the words it contains were not even in use at that time. The current and copyright-holder points out the perpetuation of errors, like the word "cheerful" for "careful." He and friends of Max Ehrmann have been chasing down rights-infringers for decades, seeking royalties - but more importantly, recognition of the true author.

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