Since my teens, I have had a copy of Desiderata
hanging on a wall where I lived or worked, or stashed in a file folder with other favorite essays, articles, and poems that I would occasionally sift through. Recently, however, I realized I hadn't read or even thought about Desiderata for a couple of years, and rather than wait until I got home to dig through my file cabinet, I ran a web search to find a copy (nothing is so about instant gratification as the internet, eh?). A score of links were listed, but the one that caught my eye did so because the subtext surprisingly claimed that Desiderata was "written by Max Ehrmann in the 1920s" and that it was "not found in Old St. Paul's Church," dated 1692. The age and consequently presumed universality of the text were part of what I always found so appealing and inspiring about the prose poem, so I had to see what that was all about.
It turned out that Desiderata, which is Latin for 'desired things,' was written circa 1927 by a man named Max Ehrmann, and that the Old St. Paul's Church source-note had been mistakenly applied years later. This was almost as big a letdown as when I learned that James Herriot was a pseudonym, but in the end it changed nothing, really. For me, the aphorisms of Desiderata are as meaningful and as calming today as they have always been, and I still turn to it whenever I find myself in need of some general-purpose 'fatherly' advice or a reassurance that 'this too shall pass.' It may sound silly, but except for the wisdom that can be found in some religious texts, Desiderata is as close to a perfect instruction guide for life as I've come across, and every time I read it, I find something new in it; a new connection is made, or a new way of seeing things is revealed, and I am rejuvenated. Given the stress and strain of our times, and the uncertainty of the future, I thought it seemed appropriate to share it here. If you've read Desiderata before, I hope it will provide a bit of welcome nostalgia. If you haven't, then I am pleased to introduce it. In either case, there is real tranquility and soul in Ehrmann's words, which are no less authentic for having been written in the 1920s. Peace.
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 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 not this 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 perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune, but do not distress yourself with 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 stars; you have the 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.
— Max Ehrmann> (c. 1927)
[ Note: This version of Desiderata is similar to the one displayed on the webpage [here] where I learned about its history because I agree that the penultimate directive "Be cheerful" is better than the "Be Careful" in my original version. Also, there is apparently some disagreement about whether or not Desiderata is in the public domain, but at least one U.S. Court of Appeals so judged it in 1976, and that's good enough for me (Bell v. Combined Registry Co., 536 F.2d 164 (7th Cir.,1976)).