December 30th is the birthday of Rudyard Kipling, the British writer and winner of the 1907 Nobel Prize for Literature. He is remembered today for many things, from his collection of stories for children called “The Jungle Book” (you may remember Disney’s Mowgli) to his poetry. However his most famous work is probably the inspirational poem “If”.
This poem is more than just a bit of pleasant reading; it stirs something deep within you, buried under the cynicism of this age, under the disappointments of the defeats, under the apathy of the daily grind. In just 32 short lines, this poem stirs the desire to become that good, virtuous, larger-than-life Person you know you were born to be.
Kipling’s “If” has been a moral compass for generations of people. Winston Churchill called it his “spiritual autobiography”. It was Ayn Rand’s favorite poem, read at her funeral in lieu of the graveside service. It has influenced and touched the lives of Gerald Ford, Woodrow Wilson, Lady Bird Johnson, Bill Cosby, Charles Swindoll, Wayne Dyer, and countless others. It is listed in its entirety on hundreds of thousands of web pages and quoted on tens of millions of them. People have this poem sitting engraved on plaques at their desks or hanging in frames on the walls of their houses or cubicles. This poem has been the subject of books, featured in movies, and even made into rock songs. In my opinion, these 32 powerful lines redeem any shortcomings of their author and may very well outweigh everything else he wrote, because this small poem has planted the quest for Character with a big ‘C’ in millions of minds.
Words have immense power to shape our lives. It has been stressed throughout history from Old Testament prophets and Plato, continuing today. This saying probably captures it best:
Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.
Words are food for our minds; if our bodies are what we eat, then our minds and hearts are what we read and think. It is interesting that a society so obsessed with the diet for the body, utterly forgets about the diet for the mind. We forget that our minds tell our bodies what to eat and what to do! Maybe the prescription for our obesity epidemic is to read Kipling’s “If” three times a day before meals? Whether we want to lose weight or succeed in business, we must set our minds on our goal and have the discipline to keep at it. It is interesting that Kipling is very popular in the military, in a place where the discipline reigns supreme. I suppose that putting one’s life on the line brings out the core of one’s character, and Kipling is all about character.
We are never better than our ideals; we never achieve more than our highest dreams. Kipling’s “If” gives us the highest ideal to look up to and inspires us to dream the loftiest of dreams. Furthermore, this great poem brings something so sorely missing in this day and age; it brings the understanding that embodying our ideals and striving after our dreams is not someone else’s responsibility, but ours. It’s up to you!
So, on Rudyard Kipling’s birthday, let us remember him by reciting his most famous creation, his poem “If”. I think all of us could stand another reading.