Was Kipling's Poem Good Advice
Firstly, a caveat. Rudyard Kipling’s If appears to speak to the male gender alone. For the purposes of simplifying the language, I will adopt his father/ son approach within Embrace Life’s Randomness, but please know my writing is intended to speak to everyone: mothers, sons, daughters, and everyone in between. The day eventually comes when the father’s son returns home from his life journey and has become a Man. The hope is that this happens to all sons; some take longer than others, of course. Some continue to return for advice or help, while others will reach a point where they don’t want advice. Imagine advising your adult son as Kipling advises us in his poem, If. Is it possible to keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs, or being lied about or being hated? How will that work out? If, on the very day your son sets out on a journey and others doubt him, keep him waiting, lie to him and about him, and perhaps even inflict violence upon him, then was your advice enough for his journey?
One answer might be that those are all outcomes that just randomly happened. He did not cause them and had no influence over them, so he ought to just respond to the one thing he can do something about: his attitude. But, delving a little deeper, were the events in his journey random? Could he, in fact, have anticipated some problems? Couldn’t you have at least told him that if someone wanted to inflict violence on him, then to be prepared and punch them in the face if necessary? If your son thought that you failed to prepare him for the trip ahead because you, in your stoic look at life, only considered his needs internally and advised on how to keep the right attitude, then he might be justified in thinking that his father wasn’t just stoic, but he was also naïve about what the journey would bring. “Okay,” you answer your son. “Son, your dad’s a determinist who believes that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will.” “Come on, Dad, give me a break,” he might reply. “You can’t believe that, or you wouldn’t be wasting all your time advising me about my attitude.” You might respond saying, “Well, you’re the product of all your past thoughts, and at least that is deterministic in its effect. Don’t let these random possibilities take you off the path of becoming my definition of a Man.” “Well, Dad,” he might say, “if I am just the product of a series of decisions, wouldn’t my responses already be in place? What should I learn from what happens on the trip? Come to think of it, why take the trip anyway if I don’t have to come up with a new way of looking at things from what happens? Guess what, Dad, you might be right, but those unexpected events will be exciting and all the better. In fact, I am looking forward to those random events. Bring them on. I intend to respond with more than just my attitude. When life hits me, I am going to figure out why I got hit, or hit back, or find an advantage in it. I am going to use my agency and choice, and the outcome will be that I will be the product of my own free will, not of my past mistakes. I think that is what being a Man is.” The father in this example listens, but he has two sons, and they have both set out on journeys recently, and they both received the same advice. It will be no surprise to any parent to learn that no two children hear the same advice the same way. Never underestimate the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny. Two trips, two outcomes, regardless of whether or not they. heeded Dad’s advice. In If, Kipling (or for the sake of these examples, Dad’s advice) reflects a Victorian-era stoicism: keeping a “stiff upper lip” with lashings of self-discipline, concentrating only on events a person can do something about. For the stoic, the most important thing is knowing the difference between what he can change and what he can’t, and that what we do about it comes from within us, from our judgments, values, motives, and choices. Dads know that a son on a journey will face inevitable challenges, but the son can likely do more than simply adjust his attitude adjustment when bad things happen. Yes, it is true that you can’t do anything about the unknown, but the outcome can be very different depending on your response. The advice in this poem has value, of course. When bad things happen, people sometimes spend the rest of their lives in therapy, so no need to discount a stiff upper lip response. Some good non stoic ideas that might help on the trip could include preparation, self-defense, avoiding dangerous characters, knowing when to run, and much more. In this book and in my previous book, Why Life Stories Change, I use personal stories to try to illustrate conclusions. My own stories are unique to what has happened to me, but they will likely make you think of your experiences. For this book, I first looked back at my own life for a story about responding to adversity, to see if I could find an example where I kept a stiff upper lip, looked inward, and moved on. I then considered my ancestors who wrote their own life stories, of which I have copies. I knew I would find many stories about adversity in these writings, and that they might show whether the adversity shaped their attitudes and the outcome of their lives, or whether some sort of “resolve” might have instead. I wanted to find examples of whether their responses to adversity were the important ingredients that made the difference. My great-great-grandfather, Caleb Ebenezer Crouch, was born in 1850 and emigrated with his family in 1856 from Tunbridge Wells, England to America. His story is full of adversity. He and his family left England on the sailing ship, Horizon, and after six weeks they arrived in the city of Boston, Massachusetts. In 1859, after staying in the area for three years, Caleb’s father hired on to drive an ox team for another family, and with nine other teams they started across the plains to Utah, with nine-year-old Caleb walking most of the way. Years later, Caleb wrote his life story detailing the trip west and his later years growing up: I well remember seeing vast herds of buffalo as we traveled along the Platte River and across the Laramie Plains. Day after day, as we traveled along, we passed thousands of them. As far as the eye could reach, the plain was black with them. Great care had to be taken that they did not stampede our cattle, which sometimes happens with ox teams while passing through buffalo country. We saw lots of Indians… In 1869 at nineteen years of age he wrote of an event where he came face-to-face with an adversity that he could do nothing about. He hired on to go help build the Union Pacific Railroad: I will attempt to describe the conditions as they existed during the building of the railroad at the time of our arrival there. North Platt City was the terminus of the road, and from that point to Ogden, Utah was almost one continuous line of men and teams at work grading. The Union Pacific Company spared no money to accomplish their object, which was to build as much as possible before they met the Central Pacific Company coming from the west. One day some boys from our camp and myself were standing in front of a store when we were startled by hearing a report of a gun a few steps from us. A man came staggering towards us, saying “My God, boys, I’m killed, I’m killed,” and fell to the ground close to where we stood. The fellow that had fired the shot had fired from the center of the street. He had used a Henry repeating rifle. Seeing he had only wounded this man, he threw another shell into the chamber of his gun and advanced upon his victim. The wounded man, seeing him coming, raised himself on his hands and knees and begged for his life, but there was no mercy for him. The muzzle of the gun was put against his head and his brains scattered over the ground. Such scenes as this were quite frequent. The boys that witnessed this event must have been impacted. I must wonder if something like this happened today, that those boys wouldn’t spend years in therapy. I assume that Caleb felt it significant since he included it in his life story, but what is even more interesting is that it didn’t come up again. He moved on with his story. His response suggests that he had the stiff upper lip approach of fortitude and stoicism that Kipling recommends. Of course, it was also an example of how negative random events occurred outside his control. Kipling’s poem and Caleb’s life story tell of real events that people faced. As they identify those events and the response or efforts as they reacted to them, they reveal their own humanity. Sometimes you witness the vast herd of buffalo on the plains and never want to forget the spectacle. Sometimes someone gets shot walking up behind you, but then you go work on the railroad. Thanks to life stories found because of my interest in genealogy, one of the top three hobbies in the U.S., I found a connection to Kipling’s poem as it described adversity and an implied stoic response. I felt closer to my great-great-grandfather and saw even more of his humanity in the last story recorded in his book, when in 1940 at ninety years of age he wrote his last entry. He traded his trustworthy bicycle, which had been his only means of transportation around Salt Lake City, for a motorcycle. He said the bicycle was getting too hard to pedal, but on arriving home his wife informed him he could not keep the motorcycle, as she thought he was too old for that mode of transportation. He never did dare to tell her he had driven it all the way to Ogden that afternoon and back to try it out on a 100 + miles round trip. In the morning you buy a motorcycle and drive 100 miles, and then late in the day you take it back because your wife told you to, but you don’t tell her about the 100 miles. Life is full of unplanned decisions.