Friday, October 2, 2009

Be Careful!

I do not know everything.
Avoid vexations to the spirit.
Be careful.
Strive to be happy.

As you can see, over there in the right & left hand columns, I like to keep a running list of maxims and mottoes and assorted proverbs that have trickled into my life from various sources, been absorbed into my frame of reference, and echoed through my thoughts over the years, some from long ago, others more recently.

"Evidently I did not know everything," for example, is a line from Jean Paul Sartre's novel Nausea (1938). Such a simple sentence, yet an excellent reminder, whenever I'm starting to feel omniscient, that my understanding of any given situation or conflict is limited. I might think I know everything, but I don't.

Another favorite comes from Max Ehrmann's well-loved credo, the "Desiderata" (1928). He cautions the reader: "Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit." Indeed, aggressive people can be vexatious, but so can other kinds of people and many other things as well. My personal exhortation is more general:

"Avoid vexations . . . to the spirit."

Not just vexatious people, but anything at all that vexes: listening to loud and aggressive television, driving down a busy road, standing in a long line, waiting "on hold" for customer service, taking a stressful trip, attending a bothersome event, writing a worrisome letter. If it's not crucial, if your heart's not really in it, if you can work around it, then seek out a less vexatious alternative. Not always possible, but worth a try. When vexed, I also try to remember Ehrmann's closing lines:

"With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be careful.
Strive to be happy

More often than not, any printed version you come across these days will read: "Be CHEERFUL. Strive to be happy." But when I learned this poem back in the 70s, I memorized it as "Be CAREFUL. Strive to be happy." In the hit (#8 in 1971) musical rendition, narrator Les Crane goes with "CAREFUL."

In fact, there is a publishing dispute surrounding the dual word choice. Ehrmann's own intention is apparently unclear, and the current editorial consensus is that "cheerful" is more in keeping with the poem's optimistic outlook and positive tone. But I'm not so sure about that.

I think I like it better my way. Certainly it would be hard for me to change over now. Undoubtedly "be careful," is more useful advice for me than "Be cheerful." Plus there's always the possibility that Ehrmann really did mean "Be careful." Does cheerfulness go hand in hand with striving? I don't think so, not the way that striving goes with care.

I can agree that the poem is filled with good cheer. Kindly, Ehrmann says, don't be cynical, don't be distressed. Optimistically he says be gentle, be at peace. However, his message is also cautionary. Don't become "vain and bitter," he warns. Don't neglect to exercise "caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery."

Wisely he recommends, take care! Avoid . . . vexations to the spirit!

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 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 and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is 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 critical 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 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 with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

© Max Ehrmann 1927

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