Bill Long 12/5/05
The next two stanzas deal with the importance of affirming heroism and love even as the temptations to cynicism and disenchantment obtrude themselves.
"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"
How do you both embrace and be cautious about the world? How do you know if you are being conned by the trickery in the world? I was eating lunch with a friend one time who told me about her brother, now deceased, whose charm was so immense that he almost convinced her to kidnap his daughter from his ex-wife because he wanted to whisk her away and knew that the sister would be able to get the child. My friend shook her head and said, "He almost convinced me to do that. He was such a great con man." Some of us are so convinced that we are going to get conned that we, as it were, enter into life's battles already accoutered with helmets, knee pads and other equipment that prevent our easy movement, like David as he first put on someone else's unwieldy armor when going to fight Goliath, before realizing that going armed simply with his sling and five smooth stones sufficed him. The danger of excessive caution is that we miss the geniune sense of striving, the high idealism that is the charm not only of youth but of any age. We miss out on life if we aren't touched by and even feel within an aspiration for heroism, for the romance of high achievement and valor.
Speaking of romance, the Desiderata continues:
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."
Just as a fear of being conned might blind us to genuine idealism in the world, so our cycnicism about love may make us miss this most precious gift of life. Some of us practice what I call the vice of extrapolation. We use today's experience as a baseline of what each day should look like, either for good or bad, and project it infinitely into the future, thus concluding before life is lived how life will end. One can do this both for good and bad things. I once extrapolated about my wealth after a day in the late 1990s when the markets went up considerably. I did some rapid calculations which would have had my family be billionaires by the year 2075. It didn't dawn on me until later that I was suffering from, to use the language of the Desiderata, a "vexation" of spirit.
But this part is about love and the cynicism that can arise because of "disenchantment." We love and are disapppointed in love. Sometimes we feign love because we might not know whether we truly love another, even though the other loves us, or because we want the benefit that the person can offer us. We become hurt in love, deeply deeply wounded, so wounded in fact that we feel we need to "take a break" from its alluring call. Yet it is always there, as perennial as the grass, urging us to see its beauty, to lie down in its soft embrace. The fact that this stanza links being oneself with a right attitude towards love is no accident--we become ourselves to the extent that we find ourselves in love.
"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 imaginings.
Many fears are borne
Of fatigue and loneliness."
There is a pastiche of thoughts here, relating to aging, fear, and the building of "strength of spirit." On the first topic, the words of Senator Mark O. Hatfield come to mind after he retired from the US Senate in 1997 after 30 years of distinguished service in that body (and more than 45 years of public service to the citizens of Oregon and the United States). He talked about his desire to teach a course here or there at a college, considering that the genial atmosphere of a small university would be the best way to "age gracefully." I have never forgotten his words, and I wonder sometimes if I will and am aging gracefully.
One other theme in this stanza is the mental torment to which we subject ourselves, mostly unnecessarily. "Many fears are borne of fatigue and loneliness." When we only have ourselves with whom to talk, our ideas rattle around awkwardly within our minds like a solitary object in a massive room. Friends are our tethers linking us to the earth. I like the practical spirit with which the stanza closes. Our fears are often fueled by simple fatigue. I suppose that fatigue has been the human condition since Adam started cultivating the garden, but we often don't have the maturity to stop our fretting sometimes and simply take a nap or go to bed early. Maybe one of the things we ought to surrender to the kindly counsel of years is the idea that we can solve problems in a day.
I'll have a word to say on "imaginings," but not until the next (and final) essay.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long