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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
James Shackell

A poem on an antiques shop poster provided a lifelong reminder to ‘go placidly amid the noise’

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.’
‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.’ Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

I was in my early 20s when I first stumbled on Desiderata. It was a grey weekend in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges and I was idly rummaging through an antiques shop, the rain outside drifting in a steady haze. On the wall was a laminated poster with a slab of dense, calligraphic text, the first two words writ large in drop caps: “Go placidly”.

Curious, I wandered over. My eye was drawn to the end of the first sentence, then the next … and then the next. Do you ever read something unexpected that chimes with your innermost thoughts? It’s a tingly, corkscrew feeling, like you’ve accidentally plugged into the secret truth of the universe. The background hum of the store faded away. The poem began:

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.

Desiderata is a 1920s prose poem by the mostly forgotten American scholar Max Ehrmann. The original version is 314 words long. It’s basically an instruction manual for a happy life – the “Sunscreen Song” for a time before SPF50+. It first latched on to public consciousness 20 odd years after Ehrmann’s death, in California in the 1960s, when peace and love suddenly seemed quite attractive. Thanks to a bustling underground press, by the 1970s copies of the text hung in schoolrooms and lounge rooms all over America.

Desiderata literally means “things desired”. There’s more than a scoop of Taoism in there, and a sprinkling of Marcus Aurelius, but most people don’t know the poem exists anymore. You’ll see it hanging forlornly sometimes – often in dental waiting rooms, I’ve noticed, languishing largely unread. Which is a shame, since the words are as relevant today as they were in 1927. Maybe more so.

I have several passages memorised and they have been a great help in their own different ways but Desiderata’s opening line still seems the most relevant one. Go placidly through life. Not meekly, or quietly, or anonymously, but with poise and equanimity, even when surrounded by “noise and haste”. And I don’t know if you’ve looked out the window recently, but there’s an awful lot of noise and haste going around.

It has been more than 10 years since I first read Desiderata. I’m a little older, none the wiser, and I now have a two-year-old, which means our house usually resembles some sort of toy-store-come-warzone. Tantrums are frequent and, let’s just say, highly audible. But amid the tears and the soul-grinding joy of parenthood, I think of those words – go placidly – and I can almost feel my blood pressure dropping.

It’s like a cool breeze on a hot day and a reminder that the antidote to chaos isn’t necessarily order – it’s attitude.

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