11 October 2011

Kipling Again

I’ve decided to take a second shot at Kipling’s “If” poem. I’m not actually trying to run through this thing line-by-line, but I sorta can’t help it—there’s just too much to be had in there.

Immediately after the lines I wrote about previously—about not letting dreams become your master, or thoughts your aim—comes this curious creature:

If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two imposters 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;”

When I first heard those bolded lines sung by Chuck E. Costa, (I link to him because I really, really want you to hear the song!) I found them very compelling, but I couldn’t say why. I mean, the idea of keeping a cool head throughout both triumph and disaster is very sensible and noble and all…but let’s be realistic. Does anyone actually think we’re supposed to treat those two imposters just the same? Why should triumph be an imposter? Don’t we strive for it, invite it, and incur it?

Well, sometimes. But sometimes it comes unexpected and unaided by our own skill or intent. Likewise disaster sometimes comes upon us wholly unexpected—and sometimes we invite it, or incur it.

That being said…I still narrowed my eyes at those lines so as to mull them over, for this is what I cannot help but picture:

You are at home, doing this that or the other, when someone steps through your front door—quite without asking—and it happens to be someone thrilling, charming and altogether enjoyable to be around. You welcome them with open arms. You have riveting conversation. He compliments you and your family, lifting your spirits, giving you trinket-y or not-so-trinket-y gifts. So long as triumph stays, sitting on your couch and sipping congenially whatever drink you offer him, you are flushed and in flight! When he leaves, you are rather down-hearted, but the memory of his visit still makes you smile.

Next comes a new visitor. He inevitably barges in at the most inconvenient time and does not wait for you to greet him before he begins to make himself at home. You don’t want to offer him a drink, but he takes whatever he wants anyway, getting drunk and rowdy and destructive in the process. You would love to kick him out, but he won’t leave. He insults you and your family, brings low their spirits, taking unoffered gifts from you left and right. So long as disaster stays, swallowing everything you never meant for him to have, you are uneasy and despondent. When he leaves, you lift up your head only to see the devastation he wrought, which now must be dealt with.

So I ask again…are we really to treat these two unexpected visitors the very same? It’s incredibly hard to imagine. On one hand, I don’t know that it is truly possible, or even always advisable; there’s something to be said for being able to genuinely relish a triumph, and no one expects you to put on a fake smile for disaster’s sporadic drop-ins.

But on the other: triumph can be coercive, sly and deadly. He can inflate your head and separate you from things—both trivial and vital—that gave you joy in simpler times before he came. And disaster, while cruel, can be an excellent teacher and can better expose the cracks in the veneer. Both can cause trouble, really. And both can bring about good. They just do so in such terribly, terribly different ways.

Until recently I would have left those lines mulling in the back of my mind, feeling that there was truth in them, but not understanding quite how. But a quote from Bonhoeffer brought it back to the fore.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer—who in his life became well-acquainted with that which we might call disaster, but which he called suffering—stands on viable ground when he asserts that personal suffering is a “more effective key, a more rewarding principle for exploring the world in thought and action than personal good fortune.” That is not to say that disaster is desirable or somehow virtuous by its mere existence—that’s a false greeting as well—but it should nevertheless be met with dignity. And I suspect that’s precisely what Kipling meant. Meet both these imposters with both full dignity and humility.

As Bonhoeffer said: “How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?”

...a kind of life that joys in the Lord through triumph and disaster and confidently takes and appreciates all that can rightly be acquired from both, without fear of succumbing to the very real dangers of either.


  1. As always I like your posts...These were some of my favorite lines from the poem/song (the song by the way is steadily climbing up my list of most listened to songs). I think you wrote this up well.