Desiderata: A Serene Poem & Philosophy

“Be yourself. 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.”

In January of this year, I spent several days on an enchanted little island off the coast of Cambodia, relaxing, moving infrequently, and feasting my senses upon the ravishing goodness of glistening beach and sprawling ocean. On the warm, clear morn of my departure, I wandered into Vagabonds, one of the quaint cabana-like dives sprinkled upon the beachfront.

The shop was decorated with eccentric trinkets and sporadically painted messages and murals which produced a distinctive bohemian aura. The “floor” consisted of beach, and a litter of puppies squirmed and hopped clumsily in the sand. A crowd of long-haired, languid, and seemingly sanguine folk nested by the bar, exchanging conversation and rolling tea into bulging joints.

After taking a seat, I noticed a brush-stroked message in swooping white lettering on the side of the bar. It read, ‘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.’ These words were calming, agreeable, inviting. I appreciated them. Later that day, I left the island and forgot what I had read.

日本語: Sakura Rothental AG. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

日本語: Sakura Rothental AG. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

Hella Serendipitous

Two months later, I was back in South Korea, having a beer or three with amigos, when my friend Mike, a bookish Irish fellow, asked me if I’d heard of the philosophical prose poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann. I hadn’t.

desiderataHe thought I’d enjoy it and pulled out his handy-dandy palm-computer to access the world’s information and show it to me. I did like it. Its plain, unembellished language communicated with precision and tenderness. Disarmingly simple, it seemed like something in which most anyone could find a bit of solace or relatability. It was candid, uplifting.

We neared the end of the poem and reached a stanza that sounded familiar. I’d read those words before, but where? Ah-ha! Suddenly I remembered that the very same words had been scrawled upon the bar in that colorful Cambodian cabana. Woah, serendipitous, eh?

Here’s the poem. I suggest taking it in slowly:


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 the 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 own 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 cynical 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 dark 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 cheerful.
Strive to be happy.”

Destiny or Randomness, Who Cares

I don’t think Desiderata requires any analysis. Soak it in and turn it over in your head as you like. I do want to make a few closing comments, though. When Mike showed me this poem and I realized I’d seen one of its stanzas in Cambodia, it felt more . . . significant in a peculiar way.

I’m not one to pontificate about destiny or to insist on nebulous, dreamy metaphysical principles like “Everything happens for a reason,” but nevertheless there are times in life when things seem to inexplicably align in a kind of uncanny serendipity, or synchronicity, to use Jung’s term. Ostensibly unrelated moments coalesce in a way that feels . . . meaningful, that makes one pause and briefly ponder the mysterious unfurling of being. 

I don’t claim to know why this happens or what it signifies (if anything) or to possess any insider knowledge into the mechanisms of existence for that matter. I don’t see a need to dogmatize this phenomenon of synchronicity by declaring it objectively “real” or “imagined”. But it is there, and I’m fascinated by it I guess.

It’s another strange part of my subjectivity, and usually, a welcome one, a reason to wonder and to become more aware of all that I do not know. Perhaps through some impenetrable order the words of Desiderata were supposed to find me, or perhaps I stumbled upon them twice in rapid succession by pure chance. Neither of those scenarios depress me. In either case, beautiful words exist and I have the privilege of savoring them. I can groove with that.

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Update: A further synchronicity has come to light with regards to this poem. I did not know this, but apparently it was one of my grandfather Art’s favorite poems. This is the second time something like this has happened—after delving into the work of Joseph Campbell and deeply appreciating it, I found out that he was an instrumental figure in the spirituality of my great uncle Ed. It’s nice to feel connected to my family through these words. All the best, everyone.

If this essay resonated, you'll enjoy my Dead Honest Newsletter, my list of Cage-Melting Books, and following me on on Facebook and Instagram.

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About Jordan Bates

Jordan Bates is a Lover of God, healer, mentor of leaders, writer, and music maker. The best way to keep up with his work is to join nearly 7,000 people who read his Substack newsletter.

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10 years ago

It is a wonderful poem!!! I enjoy reading your blog.

Jordan Bates
9 years ago
Reply to  Faii


It sure is. Many thanks for the support. Hope it continues to be captivating!

Nînäd Pätìl
Nînäd Pätìl
10 years ago

Brilliant article as always 😀

Jordan Bates
9 years ago

Gracias, mi amigo.

Ryan Trimble
10 years ago

Dude, Your closing remarks are perfect! These past couple of weeks I have had the good fortune of several serendipitous events, and have found my mind wandering, searching, wanting to ascribe meaning to it all. In my youth, I wouldn’t have hesitated to do this. But being older now, savoring the mystery seems more enjoyable than asserting that the universe manifested something or that god is showing me I’m on the “right path.” As you said, whether it is simply chance and atoms in motion or some signifier of our relation to the cosmos cannot be determined. But it DOES… Read more »

Jordan Bates
9 years ago
Reply to  Ryan Trimble


Thanks, really glad I’m not alone in this. A previous me would’ve also immediately ascribed meaning to it. And perhaps I still do on some level. When these things happen, there is always a strong intuitive feeling of some order beyond description, some comforting sense of a breeze of guidance, or something. I like entertaining these notions while also holding in mind other possibilities. You’re right—the mystery is tantalizing and sweet. Relinquishing the need for certainty can be difficult, but I think doing so is being honest.

Thanks for continuing to read, man. Peace.

Dr Sadie Reynolds
Dr Sadie Reynolds
8 years ago

I don’t know how I came to have a copy of the Desiderta but I have had it for over 40 years. I showed it to my new love who later became my husband but unfortunately we divorced in 1t 990. I have always loved the poem because it has brought great peace to me at times when I have been sad or lonely. I am going to research Max Ehrmann as I present workshops on stress and assertiveness and maybe I could use his poem with copyright permission in some of my sessions. I can consider this in the… Read more »

Albert dela Cruz
Albert dela Cruz
6 years ago

I still do not comprehend the meaning of these lines …

“Be yourself. 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.”

… probably I will if someone can rephrase it for me using layman’s words. Thanks for the wonderful article…

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