IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
I was once asked by a priest what I received from my parents in terms of character. After pondering this for a moment I answered him that from my mother honesty, and from my father the strength to fight for my beliefs. It is no secret that life at times truly is a struggle, and how we deal with those struggles largely depends on the advice we are given. The main character of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, gives advice to either his son, or a young man he is fond enough of to give advice in a deeply philosophical way, summing up a lifetime of experiences which should wisely set the young man down the path to wisdom, as well as a way to live among his fellow creatures, advice that would have come in handy if I were given it at an earlier age. I will describe how the main character of “If”, explores emotions, dreams, winning and virtue, while describing how I connect to its advice from a past and present perspective.
The advice from “If” begins with the main character stressing the need to remain calm during moments of crisis and accusations (Lines 1-2). Immediately following that the fatherly character advises the young man to trust himself when others doubt him, but to also weigh that doubt to strengthen his trust (3-4). I could never count the many times I have not done as the character wisely says to do. My household was one of strife and stress. Remaining calm during the storm was never on the agenda at my house. The one acceptable emotion was anger. If you wanted to get your point across you could only do it one way, by yelling. Our idea of trusting yourself was actually a cover for over confidence and arrogance, an issue that got me into trouble many times, but actually managed to get attention, albeit usually the wrong kind. Temperance in areas of raging emotion was rarely exercised. I particularly like the advice on humility, “don’t look too good, nor talk to wise”, a tough one for a “cool” teenager with something to prove (8).
Bob Dylan said in one of his songs that reality has too many heads. Illusions come in many guises and in different times in one’s life:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same:. (9-12)
As one that has had the tenacity to dream and not the fortitude to sustain it, this smacks hard. One of the last things I asked my ex-wife was whether or not she knew what it was like to watch a dream die. She never answered at the time, but I now know she did. As a former actor intent on meeting success through screenwriter and independent filmmaking while maintaining a marriage with a displaced New Yorker, those lines jump off the page. The character uses Triumph and Disaster in the form of nouns while describing them as identical imposters (11-12).
How many of us have had our own words twisted and used against us, and by people that we secretly see as beneath us: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools” (13-14). Gossip, I once heard is the Devil’s Radio, and backbiting can be a National Sport. As a practicing Roman Catholic, I know full well the damage this can cause to one’s soul and to one’s reputation. Not only should you not engage in such activity, we must also deal with the injustice against us with great humility and charity. Not always an easy task.
It is my faith that attracts me to this poem, as it reads like the sort of wisdom found in a devotional book written by a Saint. Perseverance is key, and so the main character continues: “Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken / And stoop and build’em up with worn out tools” (15-16). Repairing the damage to a soul, a mind, or reputation, is more difficult than repairing a house or car. I remember a story I heard once about a Saint who asked a couple to pluck a chicken on the way to dinner at his residence, he was very specific about that, to the puzzlement of the couple. Once they arrived to the Saints home he instructed them to go back and pick up all the feathers that they left strewn along the way. They of course protested that this was impossible. And the Saint remarked, “And so it is with the false words that you have spread against your neighbor once they have left your lips.” The couple was guilty of backbiting and helped to ruin the good reputation of a townsman.
Life can be a game of chance or risk. Sometime it seems we must be able to risk it all in order to achieve the gain that will either make us or break us. And so the character advises further:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss: (17-20)
I have always been a risk taker. When I was twenty-three years old I packed a suitcase and headed to New York to become an actor. Success eluded me, but adventure was found along the way. I have teetered many times on whether or not this was right for me or wrong, and how my life would have been different if I had pursued another path:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!” (21-24)
What I have taken from this is that our past made us who we are today and our future will be built on the past mistakes of yesterday. Wisdom is the key that unlocks the door to knowledge. Complaints and regrets do not bring forth good fruit; they only keep alive the burdens from our past. Without hope man loses the reasons to continue.
If I have learned anything in life, it would be the need for balance. The fatherly character hits on this point in a social way, “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue / Or walk with Kings – – nor lose the common touch” and strikes a nerve (25-26). Having been in this situation many times I’m touched by this seemingly simple virtue. My father has an eighth grade education and was a welder for thirty-five years. I married into an upper-middle class family in New York, the hoity toity crowd of Long Island. The difference was painfully apparent and awkward. Today I’m proud of the fact that I possess the wisdom to straddle both worlds, and in my sales profession this is an ability that has definitely help.
Confidence is a necessary ingredient for any type of success in this world: “If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you / If all men count with you, but none too much”; true, and self-reliance is more beneficial than having the bulk of the burden of others who are reliant on you (27-28). Some men have the strength to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, and some would rather have all their teeth extracted without sedatives then to be in their position. I use to carry the burden of the world on my shoulders as a young struggling artist, but the world was oblivious to my plight, so I got crushed. The reason for the crumble was simply poor direction. Since then I know full well the value of good advice. Reading this poem reminds me of how difficult it is to pick out a greeting card for children from dysfunctional families. I once had an idea to start my own line of Dysfunctional Family Greeting Cards to save myself the agony of reading syrupy sweet salutations for families of proper pedigree.
It is so easy to be distracted in our world today. And it is always so difficult to not let criticism take us down the path of false pride and anger. The main character cautions the young man towards wallowing in disagreeable moments, “If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”; and I might add, to carry on with flights of more uplifting flow (29-30). Saint Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:7, one of his last letters before his execution, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” This reminds me that when I set my course toward my goal I must fight to keep my focus on that goal, and not let little arrows of doubt or disappointments detract me from that ultimate good end.
The main character now shifts to the conclusions of the many “If’s”, he has sprinkled along the way and sums up his point, if one can do all these things: “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it / And- – -which is more- – -you’ll be a Man, my son!”, quite a lofty prize for anyone! Now my focus shifts once again to the Gospels where Christ warns us in Matthew 16:26, “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul?” Which begs the question, what is it that the world is offering to the man that he finds so worth having? Of course that can’t be known, and is open for interpretation. Having once wanted to “gain” the whole world and not ever having given thought to my soul, that statement forces me to pause.
Pope Benedict XVI said recently that we live under a dictatorship of relativism today, where objective truth is losing the battle over emotionalism. You will hear a lot of people begin a sentence with, “I feel”, rather than “I think”. I once heard a priest say that we are much worse than the pagans of old, yesterday pagans worshipped false gods, and today they worship the self. As a Catholic I’ve been taught to conquer my passions in order to save my soul. This is thought of as medieval to those enslaved to their passions, or just plain ignorant and a waste of time. I have become a student of Catholic Theology and a proud proponent of the Catholic intellectual tradition. G.K. Chesterton once famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried”. But perhaps the main character of “If” has the same thing in mind, who’s to know from what little we can discover about his personal intentions in the poem.
Either way, my own personal growth from stumbling upon various bits of wisdom accidentally along the way over the course of forty-two years might have been just want I needed. Some can handle wisdom better in tiny chunks rather than all at once. When it comes to eating, learning, or spiritual growth, it seems to work out better in little spurts rather than to force it all at once. However, some people are forced to grow up a lot faster than others, but in either case, as we Catholics say, it is all God’s Will.
~ John Andrew Dorsey
Kipling, Rudyard. “If.” A Choice of Kipling’s Verse. 1943.
Poetry Foundation. Web. 2012.