Desiderata Of Happiness
Every once in a while a gentle and quiet voice emerges from the cacophony of the workaday world to remind us of who we are. Compared with the era of my youth, there are far more such voices now but very few that speak with the palpable sincerity and spiritual authority of the author of the prose poem Desiderata, philosopher/poet/lawyer Max Ehrmann. Although he was born in 1872 it would be 1972 before he became known for the masterpiece he composed circa 1926 but which remained largely unknown until it was recorded in 1971 and began to be played on radio.
Desiderata Of Happiness
Born the fifth child of Bavarian immgrants to America, Max grew up in crowded household of seven people squeezed into a tiny one-story house in Terre Haute, Indiana. He took a degree in English Literature at DePauw University followed by studies in philosophy and law at Harvard. Literature, philosophy and law: these choices reflect both his innate sensitivity and his recognition that he needed a profession to support himself and his future family whilst he pursued his first love, writing. Nowadays, Max would be called ”A Highly Sensitive Person”. That he felt acutely the suffering of the world is clear from the poetry that he left behind. His generation witnessed huge changes like the linking of the east and west coasts by the railways, the rise of the Robber Barons, the genocidal campaign against Native Americans, electrification, the first stock market crash in the 1890′s, the Anglo-Boer War, the First and Second World Wars and the Depression. It also saw the expansion of communication from newpapers to the telephone, the invention of the telegraph, automobiles, airplanes, the winning of the vote for women in the US and Britain, the invention of the Radio and Motion Pictures, the Jazz Age of the 1920′s, the Second Stock Market Crash of 1929, and the use of the Atomic Bomb. It was an extraordinarily tumultous era and one of enormous suffering as well as technological advances. Max Ehrmann experienced each new development and setback in terms of the effects on the human psyche, particularly in terms of the losses that accompanied each “advance” in technology. Life became noisier, dirtier, more hectic, more urbanised, more dependent on technology, less leisurely in pace, and more demanding of human acceptance of impersonal systems. Much was gained in this process but more was lost and that truth haunted Max Ehrmann. Fortunately for us, he wrote about his feelings and perceptions. I only wish more of what he wrote in his notebooks and journal had come down to us. What we do have was compiled by his widow, Bertha Pratt King, after her husband’s death in 1945 and published in 1948 when it went largely unnoticed. Ehrmann was an exceedingly kind man who enjoyed listening to people but he was also intensely private so very little about him appeared in the local press during his lifetime.
A Treasure Re-Discovered
What finally brought his light out from under the bushel of obscurity was the discovery by a pastor of a copy of Desiderata that he decided to include in a collection of spiritual writing for his congregation. At that time, around 1959, Ehrmann’s name was still unknown and copies of Desiderata somehow circulated without being attributed to him. To further confuse matters, the copies distributed by the Reverend Frederick Kates to his congregation seemed to imply that Desiderata was written by an unknown author around 1692, the time of the founding of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Relatives of Ehrmann finally corrected the record and Max finally began to get the recognition he deserved. Every once in a while I find myself wanting to re-read it. For those of you who love this piece and for those who are new to it, here it is in its entirety.
Desiderata by Max Ehrmann
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; 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.
Image credits: Wikimedia Creative Commons.
Many versions of Desiderata including the two illustrated in this post are available HERE.