For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed the Desiderata prose poem. It was really popular in the ’60s and the ’70s and a ton of posters were sold of it. For a long time, there was a legend that it had been found on an old piece of parchment in St Paul’s Church in Baltimore and that the poem itself dated from the late 1600s.
But that was not the case. Desiderata was written by a gentleman named Max Ehrmann from Terra Haute, Indiana, about 1927. He was a lawyer, turned poet, and wrote a fair amount of other works, but the Desiderata poem is his most famous work.
The poem is full of magnificent language and is a great example of the New Thought philosophy that was popular in the early part of the 20th century. Sometimes the language of the poem is so majestic that it’s difficult to understand.
I’ve written this story to show some of the meaning of the Desiderata poem in plainspoken language. The poem is one of my all-time favorite pieces of writing. I’ve had it in my possession in one form or another for almost 50 years. I love it.
The words of the original poem below are in regular print. My interpretation of the meaning is in the more stylized print. After the poem, I’ve added some answers to questions people often have about the Desiderata.
Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
Stop talking to fill the silence and listen to your own inner voice.
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 the ignorant; they too have their story.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Everyone is walking their own path with their own struggles and could really use your good thoughts.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
Loud and noisy persons are almost always trying to get you to pay attention to them instead of the voice of your own heart. The internet and TV are full of these people.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
You are already you and nobody is going to be any better at being you than you are. And it is OK to let other people be who they are.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Much of the fun in life is the journey, not just the destination. If you don’t enjoy the journey, you are wasting most of your life.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Pick something you like to do and learn more about it, and let everyone else do the same.
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.
Individually, people are pretty good. Many of them think they have to act some other way at work; they don’t have to, but they think they do. In their hearts, most people are kind and good. Pay attention to that part of them.
Don’t pretend to be somebody you aren’t. It doesn’t work well, never lasts, and is always a waste of time. But understand that who you are and how you think is going to change over the course of your lifetime.
Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.
The greatest commandment is love. It is all that counts, and if you concentrate on loving others, you will find your own life filled with love in return.
Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
It is OK to grow up; your view on things changes, and it's really a lot of fun, no matter what they try to tell you about wanting to stay a child.
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.
Authentic spirituality is always about love and light. If a spiritual practice or religion teaches anything different than that — especially if they are teaching you to be afraid — that teaching is wrong, and its time for you to let go of your attachment to it.
Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.
That inner voice that talks to you, you have control over. And when you let it say nice things to you, your life becomes more beautiful.
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.
You are not a mistake, you are not a sinner, everything you are is God. Everything. You are not cut off from God, he doesn’t think you are bad and every day He is sending you signs and symbols of how much He loves you.
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.
It's OK, the part that counts most is your heart. Think good thoughts, do good things, and allow others to do the same for you. Your perception of life will change tremendously, much for the better.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
Let yourself be happy. Your life will be so much better when you are.
Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”
Desiderata questions and answers
What does the word Desiderata mean?
Desiderata means things that are desired or wanted. The implication is that these are desired qualities of the soul and of the heart.
Who wrote the Desiderata?
The poem was written by Max Ehrmann, a lawyer from Terra Haute, Indiana. He first published it in 1927.
What is the legend behind the Desiderata?
Legend has it, that the poem was found in Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland, but this is not the case. In 1959, Reverend Frederick Kates included the poem in a book of devotional materials. The date comes from when the church was actually established, not when the poem was written.
I love this poem, I hope you enjoy it as well.