Introduction .. The poem written by Max Ehrmann came to the limelight long after the author had departed from the world. This appears strange how such a piece of brilliant literary work escaped public attention when Max Ehrmann was still alive. The poem, written as an advice from a father to his growing up daughter elaborates the best path to cope with to the rough and tumble of this world. The poem stands out for its simplicity, its pure-like-pearl exhortation, and its tenderness. The poem radiating love and wisdom aims to pave the way for the daughter who, obviously has grown up in the secured domestic environment, and has not faced the stark realities of life. The advices given are so apt and so useful. The world has changed a lot since the poem was written almost a century ago, but the poem has not lost its relevance even a bit.
The poem …
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
Meaning ..The speaker wants his ward to enter life in this world quietly and with minimum fuss. The world is already so full of noise, hustle and bustle. In making a conscious effort to remain quiet, one can enjoy the pleasures of peace.
Deeper meaning .. The world has no dearth of chest-beating rancorous people. The noisy environment seems to suit those who can beat their own drums ever louder, and scream to make themselves heard. But, that’s not the way to go. One can always stand up to one’s convictions and practices through silent, but dogged clinging to one’s beliefs and ideals. There is no need for publicity to assert oneself.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Meaning .. Don’t surrender, don’t cede ground unnecessarily and be firm. At the same time, don’t ruffle others’ feathers, be friendly, and be sociable.
Deeper meaning .. One can’t be a loner, introvert, and a cocooned self. The world has no place for such morons. One needs to reach out to others to make friends, share ideas, sympathize and contribute to the social life. In order to do these, one need not be too pliable. One can stand one’s ground without bending too much backward. Respect dissent, but don’t give up your own ways. This is the advice of the speaker.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Meaning .. One must state one’s views firmly, articulately and fearlessly without being overawed by any overly aggressive bystander. While engaging in a discourse, one must listen to other’s views with respect and attention, however unpalatable they might be. These people might appear stupid and ill-informed. Nevertheless, they deserve a patient hearing. They are as worthy participants of the discourse as you are.
Deeper meaning .. The world is so full of people who tend to shout others down, stifle dissent and ride roughshod over their opponents’ views. Such intolerance brews dangerous disagreements and conflicts. So, being respectful and accommodative to a different viewpoint is so much more desirable. By respecting a divergent viewpoint, one can reduce bitterness, and foster harmony.
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.
Meaning .. Here, the speaker has two distinct counsel for his subject. They must shun overbearing and boastful persons who believe in getting past others through belligerence and domineering manners. These humans are disgusting and leave a bitter memory in the minds of the people they interact with.
In his second advice, the speaker suggests that comparing with others leaves one feeling inferior, jealous, and underwhelmed. In the long run, this robs an individual of the zeal to forge ahead in life. It has to kept in mind that in the world, there are people of varying capabilities. One simply can’t be at the top either once or on more occasions. Thus, there will be people with better or worse accomplishments, skills and gifts. This is how the world is made. This is the inescapable reality. One should be happy with one’s achievements, and pause to plan for bigger ones.
Deeper meaning .. People are generally unhappy to see others earning more, amassing more wealth, occupying higher positions, or receiving more attention. This corrosive trait grips people in competitive professions generally. Athletes, scientists, people in the show business, army leaders, and business tycoons generally feel angry on seeing their peers getting past them. This unease to accept others’ success with grace leads to great torment inside. In the worst case it may lead to depression and even suicide. Comparison with others must spur you to greater heights, not plunge you in perpetual envy and nagging dejection.
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.
Meaning .. Now, there is some idea that is so much akin to what the Bhagvat Gita preaches. No duty is lowly, so long as it is done devotedly. The author says that one must remain fully committed to one’s career and job. It is the sincerity and involvement in one’s career that works like a bullwark against the vagaries of the times, the swings of the economy, and the uncertainties of the job market. He goes a little further and calls upon his subject to manage their business with prudence and caution, so that the intrinsic risks don’t imperil the viability of the venture. One must guard against frauds, deceitful people, and tricksters. Despite such evil, one can find meany virtuous people who are dignified, idealistic, and enterprising. ‘Look around, and emulate them, ‘says the speaker.
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.
Meaning … The speaker asks his subject to be self-assured, sure and confident. ‘Don’t express love if you don’t have it,’ counsels the author. At the same time, don’t be indifferent to love, or make any attempt to stay detached and aloof. Love is universal and enduring. When everything else is ravaged, and the social landscape looks so parched, it is love that endures, and embalms the wounded soul.
Deeper meaning .. Love is a noble sentiment. In all ages, in all societies, and in all cultures, people have drawn sustenance from it. In times of distress, when everything around falls apart, love builds and sustains relationships. It invigorates the depleted soul, re-energizes the emaciated spirit, and restores beauty to life. So, one must not deprive oneself of it, nor should one overly go out for it. That would be a sign of weakness.
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.
Meaning … The author asks his subject to heed noble counsels emanating from age-old sources. To benefit from such counsel, one must eschew the aberrations and excesses of youth. When tragedies strike a person, he can fall back upon his spiritual strength to ride out the calamity. A noble spirit acts as a vanguard against the many pitfalls of life. To develop a strong spirit, one must make a disciplined effort. While doing so, one must not conjure grave and depressing situations. There is no need for it. Overwork and enforced solitude aggravates worries and unfounded fears. In trying to inculcate discipline, one must not punish oneself needlessly.
Deeper meaning .. It is very clear that adversity bedevils everyone’s life. To combat it, one must develop inner strength. That comes from a strong spirit nurtured over a long period of time through austere practices. But, over-indulgence in work and living a lonely life can truly be very harmful. Practice of discipline is essential, but not self-inflicted pain, both physical and mental. A certain degree of self-indulgence soothes the scarred soul.
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.
Meaning .. The author tells his listener to imbibe the universal spirit, feeling at home in the midst of the flora and fauna of Mother Earth. They must feel confident about their place, and not intimidated by any hostile elements. Apparently, the author has some socio-political considerations in mind that tend to unsettle the harmony among individuals and communities in different places of the world. By addressing this fear squarely, the author urges his listners to stand up to forces that challenge their place on earth.
Deeper meaning .. The adolescent is growing up and entering adulthood. In such a crucial period in life, one must practice universalism and eschew narrow parochialism. ‘Live and let live’ should be the creed of the young citizen of this world. For this, one needs to feel confident about one’s rights in this universe. The changes happening in this universe are inexorable and irreversible. By being flexible, receptive and liberal, one can live here in harmony with the sorroundings.
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.
Meaning .. In these lines, the author transcends religion, and the narrow barriers of faith. He asks his listner to repose complete faith in Him treating Him to be the guiding star in all their endeavours and pursuits. One must not lose sight of Him in the din and bustle of life which are so distracting and unsettling. One must listen to one’s soul’s voice all the time, and not allow thw endless squabbling between humans to cloud the life’s long term vision.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
End ….The life’s path is full of potholes. Failure, boredom, frustration, disease, and want bedevil life at every step. Yet, there is always light in the midst of so much darkness. One must learn to discover this light and allow it to illuminate one’s soul and path. With equanimity and stoicicsm, one must accept defeats and failures, and learn to benefit from them. A contentented face and a happy interior are two great boons. They must be cherished.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS …
Write the theme of the poem Desiderata.
Growing up in age poses different challenges at different stages. Particularly, the years that take a child from pre-adolescence to adolescence to youth bring in their wake tumultuous changes. Along with the body, the mind matures. These are the times to dream, aspire, and engage in adventure. Many a times, young people, swayed by heady romanticism forget to rein in their effervescent ambitions and misplaced self-assurance. They venture out to attempt things that are well beyond their reach. Consequently, unpleasant and unintended consequences besmirch their lives resulting in lifelong agony. Girls are more vulnerable to such pitfalls, because God has gifted them with stronger feelings of empathy, and morality compared to boys. It falls upon their parents to guide them, so that the entry into the adult world is as seamless as possible. The poem is a very moving piece of verse where the father speaks like a sage to his darling daughter with words of saintly wisdom.
A daughter emerges out of the cloistered domestic environment to face life on her own. This is a fraught period of life where young women face lecherous characters, tricksters, and vile people. The young girl has to learn to keep herself at arm’s length of such hideous people. Then comes the life in the work places, its challenges, the youthful urge to excel, and the resulting risk of unsustainable burden.
Fathers and mothers worry about their growing up daughters more than they do about their sons. The father is the strong man of the house and the principal defender of the family’s dignity and honour. So, in this poem, the father has donned the robes of the counselor. The father faces the rough and tumble of life and is, therefore, more qualified to give the advice to the daughter.
The poem touches the heart, because it captures the feelings of the heart. The more we read it, the more we feel about the strength of paternal bond. In a way, the poem radiates goodness. It transcends the boundaries of ages, cultures, and geographies. This is the reason the poem has achieved such universal appeal.