Words to Live By

Many years ago, as a young adult, I saw a poem hanging on a supervisor’s bulletin board. After reading it, I hand copied it and brought it home. That one piece of paper traveled with me, from office to office, for over twenty-five years.
 
I still have the same handwritten copy. The paper it’s written on is now yellowed, and possesses more than a few holes from all the push pins that anchored it to various walls and cork boards. It’s safely tucked in a folder, but I no longer feel the need to display it. The words have long been committed to memory.
 
The poem is a timeless guide to living a grace-filled life. Some find it trite, others criticize its literary value. But it’s hard to argue its wisdom.
 
The poem is titled Desiderata and was written in the early twentieth century by poet Max Ehrmann. You may have seen it on posters or cards. The poem was also recorded by Les Crane in 1971 on an album titled Desiderata, and won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album.
 
 
The Desiderata
 
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 to 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 or 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’s 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 in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
 
Max Ehrmann

 
 
Desiderata is Latin and means ‘things that are yearned for’. Apparently Max Ehrmann felt his life was most in need of these virtues. Mine too. And perhaps that is why this poem has been so meaningful to me over the years.
 
This poem is the closest thing I have to a life motto or mission statement.
 
When I began reading the bible, I noticed that several of the sentiments in the poem were also expressed in scripture.
 
For example, the Desiderata says:
 
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
 
The bible says:
 
Be still, and know that I am God….
 
Psalm 46:10

 
The Desiderata says:
 
As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all people.
 
The bible says:
 
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
 
Romans 12:18

 
 
Now that I am maturing as a Christian, I also read parts of the poem with a different perspective:
 
You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.

 
Well, actually I am a child of GOD, made in His image, and my life and future are a gift, purchased at a steep cost by Jesus.
 
Nevertheless, this is still a poem that speaks to me as I look in the mirror, astonished at new wrinkles or skin that used to be firmer.
 
Take gently the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
 
Or when I lay awake at night with anxiety that weaves its tentacles throughout my being and squeezes the peace out of my heart.
 
Do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
 
Or when I envy the good fortune or gifts of another.
 
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter….
 
It took years, but I finally found a “life verse” from the bible that I return to time and time again and also gives me peace, comfort, understanding and direction. It is a place to rest unanswerable questions and frustrating issues. Mine is:
 
Trust in the Lord
With all your heart
And lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways
Acknowledge Him
And He shall direct your paths.
 
Proverbs 3:5-6

 
Many believers have a “life verse”; one that holds special meaning or serves a multitude of needs.
 
So why does this matter?
 
Well if you are a word person like me, someone who processes life through language, then words hold extraordinary power.
 
Words can be building blocks that form a strong foundation for relationships, yet they can also the hammer that breaks them apart.
 
They can be the salve to wounds, or the sword that creates them.
 
Having a poem or life verse can be a reminder or who you are or want to become. These words can indicate our greatest struggle, or our grandest hope. Sometimes both.
 
My step daughter has “blind faith” in Italian tattooed on her forearm. She says it’s her strength and her weakness. She has appreciated its power and felt the sting of its curse too.
 
So how about you?
 
Do you have a verse, poem, or quote that you live by or turn to in times of struggle? Or maybe it’s the lyrics to a song. What has guided, comforted, inspired or encouraged you?
 
If you don’t have a life verse but would like to have one, here is a post I found that gives you twenty to consider as a start!
 
 
If you’re willing to share, please leave a comment, or email me for a more private conversation about this topic. I’d love to hear from you!

4 Comments
  • Sarah Elizabeth
    October 25, 2016

    My life verse is Isaiah 30:21 “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind them, saying, ‘This is the Way; walk in it.'”

    Love what you shared!

    • Jo-Ann
      October 25, 2016

      Thanks so much for sharing your life verse Sarah Elizabeth! That’s one of my favorites as well. And thanks for stopping by. 🙂

  • Mary Ellen
    October 26, 2016

    Jo, I often say this as I lay in bed at night.. ” Surely it is God who saves me. I will trust in Him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense and He will be ( is )
    my Savior. ” taken from Isaiah

    • Jo-Ann
      October 26, 2016

      What a comforting verse to say at night, especially when anxieties creep into our thoughts and threaten our peace (and ability to sleep!) Thanks for sharing Mary Ellen.

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