Thursday, May 09, 2013

Desiderata: So What If It's Cheesy?

(Reflections on “Desiderata,” prose poem by Max Ehrman in 1927.)

Is this cheesy?  “You are a child of the universe.  No less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.”  How about the advice, “listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story”?

This morning, I heard a bland reading of these words over an uninspired “smooth jazz” accompaniment.  It's 43 years after I heard the dear old actor Vincent Price recite these words on Carol Burnett’s TV show -- over a soft-rock music track and the gospel choir's refrain "You are a chi-i-ld of the universe!"   In the early 1970s, when hippie counter-culture was being sold over - the - counter, this "prose poem" called Desiderata appeared in little gift books and inspirational posters.  I haven't thought of it much since then.   

But if it’s little more than a compendium of fortune cookie sentiments, well, I’m sorry:  It had great impact on one earnestly agnostic 7th grade boy in 1971.

Back then, hungry for a religion and angry at churchy classmates who relegated my Jewish buddy to Hell for not accepting Jesus, I copied Desiderata in the fanciest script I could manage and made a little shrine around it.   Back then, I was told, it was an anonymous poem from centuries past.  For a while, that was my religion.

It was good advice.  A  slightly built 7th grade comic book geek who listened to Mama Cass and the Carpenters, painfully envious of the bigger boys who played football and listened to Steppenwolf,  I needed to remember, “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

Just last week, I decided not to finish reading a novel, saying to myself that I should avoid  “vexations to the spirit.”  Now I’m reminded where that phrase came from:  “Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.”  Good advice, good reason.

Here’s some more good advice: “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.”   That’s what reading literature and poetry do, and morning prayers, too.  (See my article, "The Power of Liturgy: I've Heard It All Before.")

“But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”  I needed those words this morning, as I fretted about things left undone.

The Seventies are remembered now in terms of America’s retreat from the world because of Vietnam, disillusion with authority because of Watergate, and replacement of supposed Sixties' “idealism” by smiley faces and "Have a Nice Day."    “Desiderata” offered a guilt-free, kind-hearted, ecumenical secular religious view of life.  That was a good side to the Seventies, a sweetness that seems naïve to us now.

But who doesn’t need to be reminded of the sentiment in these final lines?  “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.”

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