Bill Long 12/5/05
To the End
Before getting to the last few stanzas, I want to pause on a few words in the one last mentioned: "do not distress yourself with imaginings." Earlier in the piece we were exhorted to enjoy not only our achievements but our plans, but here we are cautioned about our "imaginings." What these two statements point to is that one of the battle grounds in our lives is the future. We fight with ourselves over the future for which we long. Sometimes we try to live in that future before it dawns.
The English word "imagine" is derived from the Latin word meaning to "form a mental image of" or "to picture to oneself." The mind has a picture-taking and image-making capacity superior even to the latest Canons and Minoltas. And, indeed, the word is used in our language in a positive way, as when David Hume said in his Treatise on Human Nature (1739): "'Tis an establish'd maxim in metaphysics..That nothing we imagine is absolutely impossible." But the Desiderata is using the word in a slightly different way, derived probably from the KJV of Psalm 2:1, a verse that fascinated Handel as he wrote Messiah. "Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vaine thing?" Miles Coverdale, in one of the earliest English renderings of this passage (1535), had it as "Why do..the people ymagyn (marg note. meditate) vayne thinges?" And not only is imagination linked with vanity in the 16th and 17th centuries, but it picks up a legal connotation which is arresting. "To imagine" is taken as a synonym of "to compass," which means to plot, devise or plan, especially a traitorous plot. As early as 1491 we have: "Richard White..traitorously ymagened and compassed the dethe and desctruccion of oure seid Souvereigne Lord." And, so frequently did imagining and compassing go together that the first great systematizer of the common law, William Blackstone, could say in his Commentaries:
"What is a compassing or imagining the death of the King, &c. These are synonymous terms; the word compass signifying the purpose or design of the mind or will..But, as this compassing or imagining is an act of the mind, it cannot possibly fall under any judicial cognizance, unless it be demonstrated by some open, or overt, act."
Thus, in the late 17th century the word "imagining" had a negative connotation, both in theology and law. In the former it was connected with vanity, in the latter with treason. Let's hasten on to the rest of the Desiderata.
"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 no doubt the Universe
Is unfolding as it should."
Of all the words of the Desiderata they have the most modern "ring" to me. And, the last line is so Anglican, as we might say today. Can't you just imagine a British-inclined parson of the looking out at his fairly comfortable charge in Baltimore and saying, "no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should." It isn't the same as the Panglossian optimism, attributed to Leibniz in Voltaire's bitingly sarcastic Candide, that this is the best of all possible worlds; it is rather a statement of confidence in God's providential ordering of this world. Our little worries, our minor crises sometimes need to be understood in the larger flow of life. The universe has its flow, too, and it is kept within its God-ordained banks. I think the phrases, "You are a Child of the Universe" and "you have a right to be here" have very 20th century "rings" to them. No one spoke of rights "to be here" in the 17th century.
But rather than use this lofty sentiment as an indication of our insignificance in the universe, the stanza reminds us that we are children of this universe who have a right to be here. That last line is striking. John Locke had hinted at certain rights that we might have, relating to life and liberty and property, but all the complexities of his empiricist philosophy cannot measure up to the wisdom and simplicity of the simple statement, though it is from the 20th century, that we have a right to be here. More could be said about being kind to the self, but I hasten on.
"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 with your soul."
Why does the Desiderata begin and (nearly) end with the emphasis on peace or silence? Probably because these are two of the most elusive qualities known to humans. We need to keep peace with God, and it need not be the orthodox God of 17th century Puritanism. A gentler God, who would have us be gentler with ourselves, is here in view. Absent from the author's purview is the severe God, the stinging disciplines of life, the need for extensive self-examination and self-pummeling if we (or God) have not lived up to our expectations of ourselves. No words could better capture the difference between the Anglican and Puritan views of the world. Which will be yours?
Finally, the Desiderata concludes:
"With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
It is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy."
I could multiply words here, but to no real effect. Enough has been said. It is almost as if, however, the author wanted to make sure we leave him with several things in our mind. He could have stopped with the phrase, "It is a beautiful world." Recognize the beauty in the midst of the drudgery and shattered dreams. But he tells us, at the end, to strive to be happy. Of all the things people aim at, what could be more timely or important than that? Aim to be happy. As the Rabbis would say, "The rest is commentary."
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long