Desiderata: Be cheerful or be careful?

“Desiderata” is a 1927 poem by Max Ehrmann that lists two dozen spiritual tips, like:

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

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.

Each line is a winner (or as it’s called these days, “tattoo material”). Desiderata has something for everyone; both Leonard Nimoy and the New Pornographers have recorded lines from it. It’s impossible to resist:

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.

The poem concludes with elegance:

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.

That’s right: despite drudgery and broken dreams, be cheerful. Ehrmann, a native of Terre Haute, Indiana, advocates that Midwestern rugged optimism just eight years after William Butler Yeats told us “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and just five years after T.S. Eliot threatened “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” (Being a poet in the wake of World War I was a real trip.) Ehrmann said he wrote Desiderata to himself, a kind of Profession of Faith for everyday living.

Or was it?

Some early versions went to print with a very different invocation at the end: “be careful” rather than “be cheerful”:

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

With one small edit, striving to be happy faces a low likelihood of success. Beauty is something that somehow survives broken dreams. Desiderata becomes a poem about timidity, not temerity. Talk about a third-act twist.

Be cheerful or be careful. A mantra for the modern world, is it not?

Let’s not be coy, friends. Each of us starts our morning routine with the day’s inaugural sweep of work email. We scan the inbox and select either sunshine or a suit of armor, based on what awaits. The very first thing we did (some of us, before performing bodily necessities) was choose between cheerful and careful.

In time, historians determined that “be careful” was an editorial mistake, rather than a recontextualization of the entire poem. There was no alternate version; someone must have read something incorrectly. (It wouldn’t be the first time. Some publications erroneously gave Desiderata a birth year of 1692.)

We make a similar editorial mistake when we pretend we have a choice. Don’t we?

Consider this: The only economy that has maintained its value with full fidelity is the interpersonal economy. You can no longer trust real estate prices, intelligence agencies, parish priests, ballot boxes, or ingredient labels. But you can trust how you feel, and how you make others feel. In a world of fungible truth, those feelings are reliably real. (Remember the Maya Angelou quote every HR rep pins to their wall: People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.)

When we choose cheer, we create new value in this interpersonal economy through our disposition and the goodwill it generates. When we choose to be careful, we consciously default on the opportunity to build equity with other people. Mutual equity — you both benefit when someone shows up with cheer on their mind.

Goodwill is the last reliable asset around. And cheer is the key to the lock.

Ehrmann knew this. The second line of Desiderata addresses it, head on:

As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.

Yes, being cheerful faces risks — sham, drudgery, broken dreams, and the occasional emotional depantsing at work. But being careful turns our backs on the only marketplace that still operates faithfully: each other.

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