Desiderata: A Serene Poem & Philosophy

Desiderata: A Serene Poem & Philosophy

Arts April 25, 2014 / By Jordan Bates
Desiderata: A Serene Poem & Philosophy

“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.” - Desiderata

In January of this year, I spent several days on an enchanted little island off the coast of Cambodia, relaxing, moving infrequently, and feasting my senses upon the ravishing goodness of glistening beach and sprawling ocean. On the warm, clear morn of my departure, I wandered into Vagabonds, one of the quaint cabana-like dives sprinkled upon the beachfront.

The shop was decorated with eccentric trinkets and sporadically painted messages and murals which produced a distinctive bohemian aura. The “floor” consisted of beach, and a litter of puppies squirmed and hopped clumsily in the sand. A crowd of long-haired, languid, and seemingly sanguine folk nested by the bar, exchanging conversation and rolling tea into bulging joints.

After taking a seat, I noticed a brush-stroked message in swooping white lettering on the side of the bar. It read, ‘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.’ These words were calming, agreeable, inviting. I appreciated them. Later that day, I left the island and forgot what I had read.

Hella Serendipitous

Two months later, I was back in South Korea, having a beer or three with amigos, when my friend Mike, a bookish Irish fellow, asked me if I’d heard of the philosophical prose poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. I hadn’t.

desiderataHe thought I’d enjoy it and pulled out his handy-dandy palm-computer to access the world’s information and show it to me. I did like it. Its plain, unembellished language communicated with precision and tenderness. Disarmingly simple, it seemed like something in which most anyone could find a bit of solace or relatability. It was candid, uplifting.

We neared the end of the poem and reached a stanza that sounded familiar. I’d read those words before, but where? Ah-ha! Suddenly I remembered that the very same words had been scrawled upon the bar in that colorful Cambodian cabana. Woah, serendipitous, eh?

Here’s the poem. I suggest taking it in slowly:


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.”

Destiny or Randomness, Who Cares

I don’t think Desiderata requires any analysis. Soak it in and turn it over in your head as you like. I do want to make a few closing comments, though. When Mike showed me this poem and I realized I’d seen one of its stanzas in Cambodia, it felt more . . . significant in a peculiar way.

I’m not one to pontificate about destiny or to insist on nebulous, dreamy metaphysical principles like “Everything happens for a reason,” but nevertheless there are times in life when things seem to inexplicably align in a kind of uncanny serendipity, or synchronicity, to use Jung’s term. Ostensibly unrelated moments coalesce in a way that feels . . . meaningful, that makes one pause and briefly ponder the mysterious unfurling of being. 

I don’t claim to know why this happens or what it signifies (if anything) or to possess any insider knowledge into the mechanisms of existence for that matter. I don’t see a need to dogmatize this phenomenon of synchronicity by declaring it objectively “real” or “imagined”. But it is there, and I’m fascinated by it I guess.

It’s another strange part of my subjectivity, and usually, a welcome one, a reason to wonder and to become more aware of all that I do not know. Perhaps through some impenetrable order the words of Desiderata were supposed to find me, or perhaps I stumbled upon them twice in rapid succession by pure chance. Neither of those scenarios depress me. In either case, beautiful words exist and I have the privilege of savoring them. I can groove with that.

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Update: A further synchronicity has come to light with regards to this poem. I did not know this, but apparently it was one of my grandfather Art’s favorite poems. This is the second time something like this has happened—after delving into the work of Joseph Campbell and deeply appreciating it, I found out that he was an instrumental figure in the spirituality of my great uncle Ed. It’s nice to feel connected to my family through these words. All the best, everyone.

This article originally appeared at Refine the Mind

Article featured image: The Lion and Unicorn installation by Mark Ahsmann, consisting of various poems strung together. By the entrance to Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. (source: Wikimedia Commons).

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