Strive for love, virtue and placidity in a world of hatred, blindness and drudgery. This is the resonating message from Max Ehrmann’s inspirational poem, Desiderata, which helped shape my personal philosophy on love and desire. The poem underlines that we all desire certain things – be it fame, success or admiration. Yet we are kept in bounds by what I believe is a very conflicted and cynical world. Why are we so critical of dreamers? Why must we dilute hope? Why must we tell our children to dream freely only to then assert that dreams, wishes and wants are nothing more than mere flights of fancy?
Desiderata warns of a harsh world awash with pain, disenchantment and unfulfilled desires. We are encouraged to separate our wants from our needs. We are encouraged to find our place in this universe and fulfill that place obediently. We are encouraged to live a life without regrets, far removed from earthly vexations and tribulations. Although I came to know Desiderata’s words, I quickly realized that knowledge does not always equate to understanding. The attitude of resignation, a sort of passive resistance against the crushing pressures of the world, contained in Desiderata was quite radical to me at the time.
I know that what exists within this world is a cycle of wanton suffering; a system that is indescribable, indefinable and inevitable. No one desires suffering, but perhaps Desiderata is trying to explain that pain is necessary, and that only by the support of each other can we grow to overcome our personal troubles. Most have heard the common metaphor of walking in another’s shoes, that it is impossible to truly understand a person until you know his or her struggles. Growing up, I had my share of struggles and detested others for not understanding my pain. After hearing that expression, I opened up to the painful experiences of others: poverty, divorce, sickness, loss. I learned in time that I wasn’t the only person living in a world of pain. That realization, prompted by Desiderata’s words, strengthened my resolve, and I sought to understand others more deeply and overcome my own pain in the process.
It is very difficult to leave our personal prisons, but when we do we see that we are not alone. The idea that we bear sole responsibility for our successes and failings is a dangerous proposition. I uphold the belief that no man is alone in his struggles. “All men know something of poverty,” W.E.B. Du Bois once wrote. He went on to state that the true tragedy is that “men know so little of men.” I want those who are depressed and lonely and even those contemplating suicide to genuinely consider this truth: You are not alone. What you are experiencing is not unusual or atypical. You are alive not to suffer alone but to find comfort and acceptance by joining in the universal expression of suffering. As expressed beautifully by Ehrmann, “you have a right to be here.”
We desire to be accepted and be loved – human nature defines it. But it’s hard to see love’s true image and easy to seek fake companionship, false acceptance and selfish lust masquerading as love. We are quick in taking illusions, painting them in our image, and labeling them as love. But that fake love is exclusive, and I only was to see those confined to the cold gloom of hospitals, prisons and slums. The unloved. Our desire to experience true love may ultimately be the sum of all desires. Love is the lifelong hankering which the other desires cannot placate or can only satisfy for brief stretches of time. Success, fame, beauty, admiration and the myriad of other desires serve their purpose in attempting to bring us closer to the true image of love.
One of my favorite biblical passages describes how love is patient and kind. Love is not envious and keeps no record of wrongs. One summer camp experience reinforced my faith in the tremendous human capacity for love and compassion. As a teen, I spent one summer at a lakeside camp in New York with adolescents who, like me, have been diagnosed since birth with mortal illnesses. The camp’s counselors and other supervisors were caring to say the least. I saw them talk to terminal young people – not about the pain that society says they are cursed to be born with, but about their hopes and dreams for the future. These counselors were just ordinary men and women with problems of their own, but who brought light to the blind and hope to the desperate. It is not enough to just be there for the one you love but to be there with them. I am sure that every child who left that camp felt blessed to experience love in its truest sense – not the disillusioned world of false love.
I find it difficult to keep peace in the noisy confusion of life. I still get anxious and weary in the face of adversity, but Desiderata’s words continue to be a source of inspiration and guidance. The world is at times hostile to dreamers, leaving them disarmed, disenchanted, disheartened and discouraged. The coming of age brings with it pain, doubt and the “sham” of lost love as we know it. I desire to dream even when I am rudely awakened by life’s unpredictable turmoil. I desire to learn from past mistakes while continuing the precarious undertaking of balancing my desires and needs.