By Doug Jackson
Well, all right.
I mean, anyone around my age invariably encountered this poem for the first time in Les Crane’s spoken-word recording from 1971. To fundamentalist Christians from the solidly white and Republican Arizona of that era, the whole thing seemed fishy: Those background vocalists quavered away under the meditative reading until you could practically smell the incense. And a Latin title of all things! The whole business struck us as New Age-y or (perhaps worse) Roman Catholic.
Nor am I sure my quarrel with the poem has ended. After all, it’s a preachy piece of work, containing, by my count, twenty-one imperatives. They’re all frightfully low-key, of course, sort of like the way your mother used to make “suggestions” when you’d come home from college. And the closing Alcoholics Anonymous prayer that exhorts us to square things away with God, “whatever you conceive Him to be.” I always figured any god I conceived wouldn’t be worth making peace with. (Cue C. S. Lewis, who, responding to the view that “the fundamental thing is how we think of God,” thunders, “By God Himself, it is not! How God thinks of us is not only more important, but infinitely more important.”)
The backstory didn’t help either. Word had it that the rector of Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore stumbled upon the manuscript, which bore the date 1692. That had some resonance – like King Josiah happening across the scroll of Deuteronomy in the temple after all those years. But that tale was a bum steer. Turns out the thing was written by Mex Ehrmann, just a guy, a guy from Terre Haute, Indiana, no less, who worked in meatpacking and, for a while, manufactured overalls. Wrote it in 1927, long ago enough to seem out of date but too recently to pack any real romance.
So I sort of tossed it a condescending smile when the subject came up. Perhaps I mentally rehearsed one of the many parodies. (My favorite is National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata,” which opens with, “Go placidly amid the noise and waste, And remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof,” moves on to such deathless wisdom as “Rotate your tires,” and finally assures me that I am “a fluke of the universe.” We used to quote that one in the dorm hallway.)
And then a couple of things happened.
First, I encountered the title-word itself in C. S. Lewis’ science fiction novel Out of the Silent Planet. Elwin Ransom, who has been to Mars and even lived in a specific neighborhood informs a correspondent that “if you want to try your hand (at spotting the place in a telescope) the desideratum is ‘a roughly northeast and southwest “canal” cutting a north and south “canal” not more than twenty miles from the equator.'” That helped: the spooky Latin word took on meaning. The dictionary definition is “something that is needed or wanted,” but here it had a concrete application – geographical benchmarks, compass points by which to navigate one’s search. Ehrmann wasn’t nagging; he was offering some fixed land on the horizon to help me orient myself.
Secondly, I discovered that Leonard Nimoy, when he recorded the piece on his album “Spock Thoughts” in 1968, changed the next-to-last mandate from “Be careful” to “Be cheerful.” The alteration made a certain sixties-kind of sense. “Be careful” didn’t work for the Woodstock generation, neither in the current sense of taking care of one’s responsibilities, nor in the older, more negative sense of being “full of care.”
But Ehrmann wrote what he wrote, and he wrote that we should be careful. Evidently he felt that some things, and some people, deserve our care. It made me think of Our Lord’s admonition from the Sermon on the Mount, translated in the King James as “take no thought for the morrow.” The underlying verb is really more violent: don’t be torn apart by worry. But thoughtless? No, Jesus never advised that. In the same way, don’t be filled with “cares,” but be full of care: care for yourself; care for those around you. It is a call to responsibility.
Landmarks and work worth attending to: Good things to have. And really, I suppose those may most appropriately come from a guy who spent his life making overalls in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Doug Jackson is a preacher/professor/poet who after a quarter-century in the pastorate now teaches spiritual formation, pastoral ministry, and Greek for the Logsdon Seminary program at the South Texas School of Christian Studies in Corpus Christi. His collection of poetry, Nothing There is Not More from Finishing Line Press, will be published in February 2014 and is available for preorder now.