By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 12/4/2020
Posted: 4/22/2008
Topics/Keywords: #Desiderata #Immigration #MaxEhrmann #Spirituality Page Views: 4054
When the way to happiness doesn't include walls and fears.
Max Ehrmann

One day in 1926, retired lawyer Max Ehrmann awoke in his quiet home in Terre Haute, Indiana, with the idea that he should do something, create something new, and yet not new. He had awakened with notions in his head that seemed ancient and true, yet forgotten; and it seemed he might be able to return them to the public consciousness if he only tried.

He was right.

Max was a man of some accomplishment for his day. The son of German immigrants, he had attended Harvard where he studied law and philosophy. He began writing at that time, editing a national college fraternity magazine and even publishing a minor book.

In 1912, when he turned 40, Max decided to leave his attorney's job behind and to become a full-time writer. That's not an easy task, especially when what he wanted to write was mostly poetry and essays. His pieces were published by various local newspapers and he was paid for them; but surely this second career was only possible due to savings from his first.

At 54, it must have been obvious to Max that he was never going to become the Mark Twain or Elizabeth Barrett Browning of his generation. And yet, as he wrote in his diary, "I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift — a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods."

Noble moods, indeed. Max took out a fresh sheet of paper and began to write.

As with his other works, Max copyrighted the piece and sent it around to the newspapers. It may have seemed a little too noble for them; most declined to print it. However, a small newspaper in Baltimore, Maryland, did accept it, where it was read by young Frederick Kates, who was so moved by its "noble" words that he clipped it and kept it with him for the next thirty years, reading and re-reading it and finding himself moved anew each time. In the the interim, Max died (in 1945). Kates didn't know this, because the newspaper had neglected to print the name of the author of the piece Kates treasured.

In time, Kates became the rector of Baltimore's St. Paul's Church and in 1959 decided to distribute to his parishioners a pamphlet of inspirational readings, probably as an excuse to replace his yellowed and cracked original copy of Max's piece. At the top of the handout was the notation, "Old St. Paul's Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692." 1692 was the year in which the church was founded.

In the years that followed, members of St. Paul's made copies of the pamphlet to share with friends; and it was always Max's "noble words" that inspired the sharing. But, without Max's name on it, people got the idea that the piece had been found in 1692, or perhaps afterwards, during some renovation of St. Paul's Church.

By the mid-sixties, mounting colorful witty or thought-provoking posters on one's walls had become the fashion, and Max's piece suddenly found a new life as the centerpiece of beautiful posters, with serene backdrops provided to highlight Max's sentiments. Millions were sold.

Inevitably, Max's nephew, who had inherited the copyright to the piece, claimed ownership. Some lawsuits were won, some lost. In 1971 the nephew sold the rights for an undisclosed fee to a publishing company.

But Max's piece, a masterpiece of serenity, has remained untouched by the legal fracas. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone involved in a legal case regarding it, remaining untouched by its sentiments while arguing over who "owns" it.

Because the piece truly is transcendent. Max was right when he felt the thoughts behind it were ancient, yet forgotten. He may have penned the piece; yet its sentiments are ageless. In fact, that may be why its "ownership" seems so slippery. It just doesn't lend itself to the kind of literary marketing one finds with the Harry Potter franchise. The piece stands aloof of such commercial considerations. One cannot expect to collect royalties on the serene nobility of the human spirit.

The piece, of course, is Desiderata (Latin for "That Which Is To Be Desired"). It goes like this:


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 to the dull and 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.

©Max Ehrman 1926

In his piece, Max finds words for a breathtaking concept. "You are a child of the universe…you have a right to be here." What a notion! In the grandeur of the Universe, each of us has our place…and a right to that place. How dare any man draw something so artificial as a border and say another cannot cross! Borders and their enforcement are works of fearful men. The right of each of us to be where we are is the domain of the Universe. No one who has the effrontery to deny that right can ever find serenity, for to do so is a denial of the rights of others and the free expression of the Universe.

Max Ehrman was the son of immigrant parents. Desiderata was his gift to us. How many other things we treasure were also the creations of immigrants and children of immigrants (including, for most of us, ourselves)?

Perhaps that's something we should consider before we start erecting walls to keep people out.