On the other hand: Arguing with “Desiderata”

by Andrew Lazo

Let me apologize in advance for this contrarian screed. I tried, really I did, to breathe in “Desiderata” and to cling to it like creed, and I love the thoughts of my fellow Muses so far this month.

But I’m afraid I can’t swallow the thing whole. Below, I’ve worked myself up to a post that’s half rant, half nit-pick, and perhaps a healthy dose of, if not cynicism, at least satire, along with honestly-held alternative views. Something makes me guess that Doug may follow suit.

Perhaps I need a nap or more fiber in my diet. Maybe I just get a little chary of anything that so many have loved so widely. Wisdom so universally embraced that even Mr. Spock would record it makes me skeptical at the outset and even leaves me a little cold. T Bone Burnett helpfully suggests that he believes that as soon as something appears in the newspaper, it ceases to be true. This poem reminds me a little of that description.

So I hope, gentle reader, that you’ll forgive a departure from my usual all-too-earnest sincerity as I blast away at some lines and offer another point of view this time.

 

Desiderata – by Max Ehrmann

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,

and remember what peace there may be in silence.

 

On the other hand, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Make a little noise. Rouse some rabble, especially now as this year dies down. It’s the season of “Silent Night,” but the ads and the racket will drown out Advent for sure—so maybe we should make our own noise instead. Sing a new song. Say good things loudly enough to rattle some cages.

 
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.

 

On the other hand, if we can’t avoid them, perhaps we should try getting next to such people. Learn what we can, and then surprise them by allowing ourselves not to be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good. When we can’t avoid darkness, let us at least give thanks for how it helps us keen for the dawn.

 

 

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.

 

On the other hand, I need to choose my examples wisely. To aspire to more than I know. I find a great need in me to get next to the deeply gifted and faithful people I find along my way. I’ve found that truly great people usually humble themselves and ask curious questions; their greatness goads me to try harder, even as I put myself in proper perspective.

 

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.

 

Yes, but. On the other hand, I really need no reminders about the deceitfulness of the world. My soul already sighs at all the ways I deceive and find deception. And, no, heroism is not everywhere. But it is out there, and it spurs me to seek it out.

 

Be yourself.

 

Ugh. Cue Polonius, then strike the stage.

 
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.

 

Really? Could we not find a better metaphor for love? Not a red, red rose, but let’s not laud love because it pervades like a lawn I’ve yet to mow. Yes, let us love one another with a real and costly love, and take each other seriously, like no ordinary people.

But in an age where things fall apart, I look to poetry to lift my eyes when it comes to the possibilities of love. This, however, seems to urge me to embrace the banal. And I see far too much of that in my world already.

But maybe that’s just me, and instead of railing I should go for a good walk, or turn off TV.

 

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.

 

Yes. But on the other hand, fatigue and loneliness often drive me to places where power is made perfect in weakness. My own emptiness inevitably forces me to come to grips with invisible hands, to lean, safe and secure, on everlasting arms.

 
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

 

This at least I wholeheartedly embrace, but more because of Mary Oliver than anyone else.

 

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

 

But on the other hand, watered-down pantheistic New-Ageisms leave me a little cold, and reminds me vaguely of YOLO. I frankly disagree. I don’t have this right, and I will live more than once, but both depend on the appalling fact that all we have comes as a gift from God, who has no need of us.

 

 

And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

 

On the other hand, having “no doubt” that I know exactly how things should go qualifies me more for membership at a church that teaches hate and pickets funerals than it does to live in a world where Aslan is a no tame lion, however good He is.

 

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,

 

On the other hand, whatever God conceives and makes of me strikes as a much more interesting and important idea.

 
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.

 

Well, I’ll try. And what might make me happiest is reading this poem by Malcolm Guite. Him I can hear. And I can heed his advice to “begin the song exactly where you are.” And, just maybe, it will be a new song, sung to the Lord here in a foreign land.

*****

Andrew Lazo is a teacher, writer, and sought-after speaker on C.S. Lewis and the Inklings. Read more from him at his website: http://andrewlazo.com

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