As a child, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a lot of poetry. My mother’s strict and sometimes unduly stern grammar school education had some benefits for me. Mum was mildly rebellious: not wearing her school hat whilst still in uniform on her way home; a witty remark during silent lunch breaks, uncontrolled giggles during assembly … that kind of wild, untamed, unladylike, hell-bound delinquent behaviour that the nuns punished. One of her punishments was to learn poetry by heart. She can still recite them sixty-four years later. And at a push, so can I. I would plead for her to recite them over and over.
One of those poems that I still lean into is Rudyard Kipling’s magnificent classic called, ‘If’. Most people know a line or two from this poem. It is recited and quoted endlessly in all sorts of arenas and events. Even centre court Wimbledon has some of the lines engraved on its entrance. It is technically a list poem, a string of lessons about virtue, integrity, humility, and dignity. It speaks to the heart and spirit of maturity. In simple language, it schools us in basic life lessons that will stave away self-doubt and a lack of direction. It, of course, has patriarchal overtones as it was written in 1895 … a time of great certitude and tradition meeting the exotic as Great Britain garnered and swelled the now controversial Empire.
This didactic poem illustrates a selection of the human qualities that remain some of the finest and most noble of our aspirations. It’s unpretentious in its style, tone, and execution. It explores the main pillars of a healthy society: equality and respect for all mankind. It always makes me smile to say or read the word, ‘mankind’. I so dearly want to keep believing that, fundamentally, Man is kind. That our most inherent and finest quality is that of goodness. That our default is quiet altruism.
‘If’ is a spiritual poem … in the sense that it teaches a higher path for Unity, Peace, and Love. It’s clever in the way it uses everyday language. It is written for the ‘common’ man and for royalty. Perhaps it’s the first renowned poem to address kings and laypersons with the same language, there is no separation here. Yes, there are distinctions, natural observations about variance. But it is speaking to the heart of every person with regards to taking right and good action in the world. The invitation is to live any life you choose but if you follow the guiding principles in this poem you will attain a balance; an equilibrium, that echoes many Buddhist teachings.
Read this poem with presence and receptivity. Engage with the poet’s intention. Allow the simplicity and profundity to wash over you. Let this 124-year-old poem speak to that part of you that binds us all: our oneness, our shared uniqueness, our longing to be seen and heard and accepted in our light and goodness.
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 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!
We would love to hear your reflections on this poem. What can you glean from it? What are the take-home lines for you? What are you willing to lean into as an area of growth? You know ‘If’ you left your comments below and shared in our conversation you’d be an UPLIFT Man, my son!
Wishing you all the very best tools to help you discover what makes your unique expression truly shine in the world.