Desiderata Unraveled

I bought a copy of Desiderata by Max Ehrmann at The Old Curiosity Shoppe in Seattle while I was still in high school. I have no idea what happened to that small piece of parchment with the handwritten calligraphy.  I am sure it got lost along with much of the detritus of my childhood. Still, the poem is one of those things that elicits the late sixties and early seventies for me, when the world was on fire and Vietnam unfolded every night on the evening news.  I never realized that the author’s work — and this work in particular — was largely unknown while he was living.  The poem only gained popularity in 1965 when it was found next to Adlai Stevenson’s deathbed and was later re-published as a spoken word recording.  For some, it may not be their cup of tea; but for me, I relate to the simple message that seems quite prescient during these tumultuous times.

Silence.  Truth.  Kindness.

Go placidly amidst 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.


I wrote a few weeks ago about how telling each other our stories helps us empathize with each other. We live in a time when (it seems) that only the loud and obnoxious are heard.  But I feel that shifting. I feel like social media and the open access we have to all forms of information (blogs, news, videos, photos) is allowing everyone’s story to come out.  Some are telling stories that I don’t particularly want to hear.  Some of the stories horrify me.  Some of them make me think.  Some of them make me weep.  But the truth is coming out about everyone and everything.  The lizards that so many have hidden under their rock-like hearts are busy sunning themselves.  Things that I wish I didn’t know are coming to light.


Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexatious to the spirit.

In other words, turn off access to those screeching (Rush, Glenn) monkeys whose message is solely to spread fear and hatred.  They’ve had the public megaphone for long enough.

I got rid of cable over two years ago.  Not only have I saved a thousand bucks a year, I’ve saved my sanity as well.  I still have a digital converter box so I can watch some television, but I limit the amount and the kind of TV I watch. Masterpiece Theater; Fringe; Good Wife; Jon Stewart, yes. Evening News; local news; cable news; gossip, no. (Plus, it is amazing how much time you have to read and write and do other things when you don’t park it in front of the TV for hours and hours and hours each week.)

* * * * *

If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

I love this line because it is so, so true.  As a teen it reminded me of the value of being myself. Even though I spent a lot of years (my twenties come to mind) lost in a sea of self doubt and self-mutilation, trying to become someone other than myself, in a back room in my mind, this message was still quietly playing.


Plan. Dream. Enjoy.

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.

I love what I do — as I mentioned last week — but I still have many other things I want to do.  I love the notion of a bucket list. I have a friend who is currently traveling in Thailand — posing triumphantly in front of Buddhist temples and snuggling with most yummy little tiger cubs. Watching her explore exotic places (before Thailand, she visited Australia, Fiji and Europe) has rekindled my desire to walk the El Camino, see Barcelona, and visit Japan. Still, even if I never travel again, teaching (and preparing for teaching) keeps me learning and “traveling” in my imagination. And I am grateful to have that sort of grace in my life.


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.

Indeed, we must pay attention to the hucksters and the charlatans — but not so much that we cannot appreciate and see the quietly heroic actions among us. I have a friend whose mission in life is to rescue cats.  She traps feral cats, gets them spayed, clipped, wormed and cleaned up — and then offers them a loving home. She doesn’t have a lot of money, but what she has, is a lot of love. She advocates for animals on Facebook and she prays for those who are killed every day. There are people like her everywhere. They are feeding the homeless, teaching preschool, putting out forest fires, planting trees,  growing tomatoes…I remind myself every day that there is so much good in the world.


Love. Strength. Grace.

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.

Love.  Love yourself and your mother and your family and your friends.  Love. Being vulnerable to its tender hand — makes you stronger, lighter, brighter…


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.

So many things I was afraid of never happened.  And the things that did — the worries that I worried straight into the center of my life — I survived them.  Being afraid is not something that creates any value.  It doesn’t stop the losses or the changes.  It just blows holes in our lives that we would do better without.  When I think about fear, I think about the wizard in the Wizard of Oz.  So fierce, he seemed.  But in reality, he was just a little man behind a curtain.


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.

My favorite line in the whole poem. I am a child of the universe.  You are a child of the universe.  No less than the trees and the stars.

We have a right to be here.


And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

It seems counter-intuitive to not believe this.  Of course, all is well.  The universe is unfolding exactly as planned.


Peace. Joy. Beauty.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

I love the openness of Ehrmann’s viewpoint — be at peace with God — whatever you conceive Him to be…

Truly, a revolutionary stance in his time.  Peace with God.  Peace with your own soul.  Wouldn’t the world be an infinitely better place if more of us operated from this stance of peace and grace and gratitude?


With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.  

Be cheerful.  Strive to be happy. 


Again, such a simple message delivered in simple, direct language.

It still shoots me straight to the marrow, just like it did the first time I read it thirty-five years ago.

It is still a beautiful world.  Strive to be happy.


Desiderata has been in the public domain since the 1940s.  Max Ehrmann was born in 1872 and died in 1945.  His other works have been anthologized.

© 2012  Shavawn M. Berry  All rights reserved

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8 thoughts on “Desiderata Unraveled

  1. I too had a copy of this lovely verse and lost it as well amongst all the noise of living and changing transitions of my life. Thanks for bringing back the memories, I enjoyed.

  2. Just saw your pic of your foot with tattoo on google images. I was looking for a nice picture of the poem Desiderata that I can print and post on my wall. And then your photo lead me to your site. Lovely post. 🙂

    1. That’s a photo of a tattoo that I found online. I used it because it seemed to fit perfectly with the text.

  3. Love this poem with every fiber of my being! My favorite part: And whether or not it is clear to you, the UNIVERSE is unfolding as it should.

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