How If— by Kipling Helps Me

Over the last few challenging months, there has been one poem that I have turned to again and again to buttress my resolve against the storm that has been raging around me. That poem has been Rudyard Kipling’s timeless peon to honour and virtue “If”. Now while this poem is hardly a hidden gem being one of the most iconic poems in the English language, to me at least, it remains a sublimely written reminder of the people we should aim to become as well as an immovable yardstick to measure ourselves against.


Over the last few challenging months, there has been one poem that I have turned to again and again to buttress my resolve against the storm that has been raging around me. That poem has been Rudyard Kipling’s timeless peon to honour and virtue “If”. Now while this poem is hardly a hidden gem being one of the most iconic poems in the English language, to me at least, it remains a sublimely written reminder of the people we should aim to become as well as an immovable yardstick to measure ourselves against.

If— by Rudyard Kipling
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 wornout 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 whole poem is simply magnificent and is such a well of strength for me but in particular, I want to talk today about the following lines.


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;”

In the last few months, as my marriage collapsed and despite my best efforts, my wife chose to embark down a path that has led to a great deal of pain and distress for herself, our children and myself, I have often turned to this poem and drawn strength and comfort from these scant few lines.


If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

As anyone who has suffered the misfortune of dealing with the legal system will know too well, waiting is something that you must suffer a great deal of when seeking assistance from the courts. It is hard to not lose patience and hope as the months go by and your every hope is dashed. Yet this line reminds us that waiting is an unavoidable part of life. Whether we are forced to wait for a new movie we are looking forward to being released, for a job to get back to us, a loved one to return from a trip, for the borders to open or for more important things it is certain that we will have to wait.


We have to practice the virtue of patience and dig deeper to find fresh hope, fresh belief and fresh courage to keep going on. This line reminds us how easy it is to let ourselves be worn out by the crush of waiting and give in to rage or despair. Or to give up the fight and let injustice prevail as we face the long path ahead. Instead, I believe this line hints at the reward you will gain if you can just “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,”

The next two lines continue on this theme of resisting but talk about the necessity of not allowing yourself to be dragged down by the attacks of the moment. They counsel you to remember your virtues and your honour in the moment of crisis. To not allow the lies, hatred, anger or injustice of others to justify yourself in behaving in the same way.


For myself, over the last few months, I have had to face being lied about, attacked and mistreated in every imaginable way. I have found myself beset with such all-consuming anguish and despair that I have just held myself and wept. Yet through all this pain and anguish, I have been able to continue to act honourably and, I believe rightly. To not respond to hate with hate or to lies with lies. Instead, I have managed to continue to “fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run”. To move forward and to continue striving for the good of my family and my community.


And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

I don’t share this to brag or say how wonderful I am. I am just as flawed as anyone else, and I fail daily. I share this as, despite my many flaws and failings, I can attest first-hand to the power that striving for the better holds. Perfection is impossible, and no matter who we are or how much we improve, there is still always further to go.


I think this is what Kipling is trying to say here; he is reminding us that if we can seek after these virtues, the word can be ours, yet at the same time, he seeks to remind us that we must be careful because if we concern ourselves with looking “too good” or being seen to be wise, we will inevitably go astray. For as he mentions in a later verse, both triumph and disaster are but temporary illusions and should be treated as the imposters they are.


To me, this speaks of the path of wisdom that we seek to discover and follow here. It speaks of the necessity of constant striving towards the people we wish to be and for the good of our families and communities. Remembering always that ‘If we can fill the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—Ours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

 

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