My daughter’s school assigned her fifth grade class to create a poetry notebook, to contain both poems she wrote and those she found and enjoyed. To further this I read a poetry anthology from my childhood with her, and we came upon Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If—.“ On revisiting this poem for the first time in a long while I began to feel both connection—and unease. The words read, on their face, as sage advice. And, yet, it feels wrong–like it is pointing in a direction that is, in some sense, different from the way God, my life, and my faith has made me. It made me want to figure out just what makes it troublesome. Perhaps that reflection would help me to see and proclaim the truth that guides me.
Here’s the poem: If—
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, not talk too wise;
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 impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you have your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with worn out tools;
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;
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”;
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings—nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fell the forgiving minute
With sixty seconds; worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
There are, indeed, golden lines here. Pondering which is your favorite will tell you something about you. They are verses to carry, a voice that recognizes what it means to be sane in the midst of brokenness. Wouldn’t we hope that ups and downs and twists and turns wouldn’t take away our purpose or our finely cultivated adult selves? Wouldn’t we like an iron will, an ability to hang on, despite the fatigue?
Henry Morton Stanley, dubbed by those he met on his journeys “The Breaker of Rocks,” had such an iron will. In 1887 he went into Africa seeking Dr. Livingston, and as would befit a man of his nickname, Stanley survived to tell the tale. An extraordinary man to be sure, but what caught my eye was how the authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney chose to use his example to explore what helps humans have an iron will. They quote various studies, the last one of which tells how the will is strengthened by a “focus on lofty thoughts.”
Researchers including Kentaro Fujita and Yaacov Trope “found that self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high level terms (Why do you maintain good health), and got worse among those who thought in lower-level terms (how do you maintain good health)…. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against self-control, whereas a broad, abstract, long term focus supports it (Smithosonian, December 2011, 86).”
The lofty goal of Rudyard Kipling’s poem is to become a man. The poem suggests when we can gracefully negotiate misfortune and fortune alike, we have arrived at adulthood. I suspect his words are of a piece with the time and culture in which he writes, a place where one could believe in the possibility of humans to overcome the vagaries of our own soul. Unfortunately, at this moment in time adults are often portrayed as a Simpson or Kardashian, whose dirty laundry is put out on the (internet) line for all to see. Far from the humanist vision where adults are able to put away childish pettiness, to be an adult today is to be able to share in the laughter around our own ineptitude.
While Jesus speaks about welcoming the children, Christian theologians have another way to talk about what it means to be human. The answer most often given goes something like this…when we desire and seek to come into relationship with God, when our will is aligned with God’s will, we come into our fullest humanity. To be human is to be in relationship with God. You can’t get any loftier than that!
So Kipling’s focus on what it means to be a Man is akin to a focus on the “how” to maintain good health rather than the “why.” As such it feels awfully heavy, like being told to read the list of exercises one must do every day. It makes me wonder, do I really want to be a Man*
But if to be a Man (or Woman) means to be in relationship with the Creator of all things, the one who imagined and spoke the world into existence, and from clay and breath gave life to humanity, I’m interested. To be able to hear God’s word for me through scripture—and through prayer–is an amazing possibility, an amazing experience. God really can speak to us! To be guided by a divine will that understands and creates possibilities beyond our own psyches sends us out on new journeys–new adventures. Morton was to find Livingston, but Livingston went first because he was sent by God.
Finally, this image of human will holding on is seems to conflict with the motto of those that follow the twelve steps, “to let go and let God.” Their first step is to connect with their higher power, with God as they understand God.
Connect, not with your will, but with the will of God. They may not be identical.
The reason why the poem “If” has resonance is it too talks about surrender, not holding on to what has been lost, or seeking retribution for wrongs done. It acknowledges that much will be broken and we won’t have the perfect tools to fix them, but there will be tools. It preaches that neither triumph nor disaster make you what you are. But the Will… and if it is not mine but thy will be done… if it is God’s will that holds on, that gives us the courage to hold on… if I am surrendering to that which seeks to hold, guide, and love me… then…
Take my life, and let it be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take my moments and my days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
And, may we be Man and Woman enough for God.
*Irony (his and mine) intended.