Monday, September 15, 2014

"If" by Rudyard Kipling: A Poem that I First Loved

“If” by Rudyard Kipling:  A Poem that I First Loved

I first came across Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If” when I was in the 9th Grade in high school.  I was captivated by a British actor reading it on the Ed Sullivan Show.  I found a copy in the library a couple of days later, and I read it, again, intently.

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;

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 gave 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 fill the unforgiving 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!

This poem spoke to me, expressing in words my hard-won way of looking at life; “if” I worked hard enough, and was determined enough, and persisted enough, then I would achieve my goals, and be worthy.

I grew up in a small town in southern Michigan, Three Rivers.  My father worked as a butcher in a nearby grocery store.  My mother worked as a secretary in the business office of the Continental Can Company.

My father’s face was usually stoic; my mother usually had the expression of a martyr, suffering some sort of pain she never talked about.  I kept reading their expressions, trying to figure out if I were doing the right thing.

I can look back, now, and see how I was trying to develop a sense of how to conduct myself in the world.  I felt that I was alone in this undertaking, and “if” I were to get anything done, I would have to do it myself.  I was constantly looking at challenges.
I loved watching Western movies with strong heroes played by actors like John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, William Holden, Lee Marvin, Richard Widmark, and quintessentially, Alan Ladd in “Shane;” on television I liked James Arness in “Gunsmoke,” Richard Boone in “have Gun:  Will Travel,” and Chuck Connors in “The Rifleman.”

These were all manly men. . .my son!”

I learned to grit my teeth and say to myself what John Wayne says in one of his movies, “Get it done, Pilgrim.”

I remember when I was about eleven years old, and I went with my friends to the Gravel Pit to play cowboys and Indians, and a much older boy, a well-known bully, and his buddies came by, and he stood in front of me and said, “Get out of here; go play somewhere else.”

Suddenly, I hit him in the mouth, hard; he just stood there for a moment, his eyes swimming in his head, and I should have hit him again, but then I made the mistake of running away.

He caught me, knocked me down, and started hitting me.  Every time he did, I said, “Fuck you,” and he kept at it until he became tired and gave up.
Whenever I ran into him later, he never bothered me again.

I remember when I was about thirteen, my buddies and I were out on a summer night being mischievous, throwing water-filled balloons at cars driven by older boys, and then running away.  One time the car screeched to a halt, and four guys  were yelling at us and chasing us.

The adrenalin hit, and all of a sudden, I realized I was about 15 yards ahead of my buddies.  It’s the first time I realized I had good speed.

In the early fall when I was in the 8th Grade, I joined a bunch of upper-classmen playing football, and at the end, they decided to spring 60 yards.  Much to my amazement, I beat the senior 100 yard-dash man, Jim Hurd, who went on to play football and run track at Albion College.  

In that same year, Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier, running it in 3:59.7.

This reinforced my belief that hard work and a strong will would lead to success.
When I was 15 years old, at the beginning of my track career, running the hurdles and the quarter mile, I ran gritting my teeth and clenching my fists.  “If” I ran with that determination, I would win.

Then, I watched Bobby Morrow sprinting in the 1956 Olympics.  He won the 100 and 200 meter dashes, running with his jaws completely relaxed and his hands open.
I learned, then, that “if” I could be relaxed and still “Get it done, Pilgrim.”

In this poem, there are 20 dualistic set-ups.  I placed myself in the middle and hoped that I would have the strength to make the better choice.  

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;

The “if” places the responsibility directly on me; am I strong enough?  Do I have resolute enough to make the right choice?  Do I have the “right stuff.?  I have the potential.  It’s totally on me.  I am all alone.  I set it up so that it’s a question of my will.  The “if” makes it clear that the result of an either/or situation is conditional on my resolve, my will.  “If” I’m strong enough, it will turn out all right.  I must do everything I can not to be weak.

I saw my life as a balancing act, and it was completely up to me to keep my life in balance.

No one else in my family had ever gone to college.  I was amazed when my parents gave me a Remington portable typewriter when I went off to college.  It was the perfect gift because I was constantly writing essays in college.

Just before leaving for college, I taped a copy of “If” on the typewriter case, and it gave me strength as I faced the immense challenges, academically and athletically all through college.  I often read it while studying late into the night.  I was taking 5 classes, going to football or track practices in the afternoons, and working a campus job.  Reading the poem helped give me strength and courage, particularly in football and track.

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!"

I went on, “ifing” my way through life, going to graduate school, teaching in a junior high school, getting married, going back to graduate school, teaching in colleges and universities, getting a divorce, and finally, I am happy to say that the poem lost its grip in the mid-80’s.

Here’s Adya:

Now, if we’re completely caught up in our dualistic mind and not paying close attention, then we don’t even notice that a spiritual core of existence is shining through into the world of time and space.  Most people don’t begin to experience this or even know it’s there until something in their life opens them enough that they begin to experience the sublime.  (Adyashanti, Resurrecting Jesus: Embodying the Spirit of a Revolutionary Mystic, p. 34)

Christine and I came across the Course just after we started dating in the fall of 1985., twelve years before coming to Endeavor Academy.  

At the time, I was teaching English at a high school in Niles, MI, and an English  Teacher across the hall, just loved “If,” and he had a large poster of it on his classroom door.  I never said anything to him about the poem, yet I, now,  clearly saw from my experience reading the Course that standing in the middle of the duality, making choices, was not recognizing  the duality as illusory, and learning to forgive it, and resting in God.

If you can fill the unforgiving minute. . .

The minute IS unforgiving until I realize that time and space are illusory.
I finally realized that I was not alone, and that I was being guided.

And, now, I can say, after all these years, “if” I stand still for a moment and ask for Help, I will be receptive to the Voice of the Holy Spirit, and I will be guided to take the next step.  

For fifty-six years, I thought I was living my life all alone, and “If” helped me do it.  

And, now, I am so grateful that I know better.
I will not lead my life alone today.
I do not understand the world, and so
to try to lead my life alone must be
but foolishness. But there is One Who knows
all that is best for me. And He is glad
to make no choices for me but the ones
that lead to God. I give this day to Him,
for I would not delay my coming home,
and it is He Who knows the way to God.
(Lesson 242)

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