Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote one of my favorite childhood books, The Jungle Book, the gripping tales of the feral child Mowgli and his animal friends Bagheera, the leopard, Baloo, the bear, Kaa, the python, and Mowgli’s deadly rival Shere Khan, the tiger.
Decades later, and now trained in a psychoanalytic view of the world, I finally saw the bitter irony reflected in Kipling’s story. Born in India, his parents sent him at the age of 6 back to England to get an English education. He lived with a foster family, where he was savagely abused by a foster mother until age 11.
Turns out Rudyard Kipling is Mowgli, a boy that is better off being raised by wolves than by human beings.
For all my childhood wonder in The Jungle Book, I didn’t appreciate Kipling’s poetry, though, until much later in life. My favorite is one I’m using in a book project about recovering rites of passage turning boys into men. The poem is simply called If.
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:
Balance marries the high road. That’s what men strive to be and do. A man can trust himself AND not be conscripted by others’ doubts AND yet still hold a space to listen and appreciate the reasoned doubts and critical feedback from trustworthy people. A man can feel the unpleasant weight of lies and hate without mobilizing lies and hate. A man has no time for pretense and airs. For what is there to prove to others?
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 wornout tools:
Ooo. This one is hard for me. I love to think and dream. But sometimes I forget the greatest dreams and the keenest thoughts are not enough. A man must act! He must penetrate the world with productivity.
Then the couplet that sends chills: to treat both triumph and disaster the same – as imposters. But … but … I revel in triumph. And I’m terrified of disaster. Imposters? I could spend my life ruminating on this. And I will.
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!”
Let us begin again. And again and again – “Start again at your beginnings.” Or, in the words of Kipling’s kinsman Winston Churchill, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” Or, as my spiritual director once said to me, “Endurance is worship.”
Never, ever, EVER give up.
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.
Whether you are royalty or homeless, famous or anonymous, brilliant or simple, rich or poor, the mark of a man is that he treats all with the same human dignity. He measures character, not status. He lays his bias at the feet of each new greeting, willing to meet each individual with hope, welcome and respect. All men count with him. But none too much. For all men, too, are flawed.
And now I see another Englishman, the late Sir John Gielgud as the butler in the movie Arthur (1981). In my favorite scene, the butler slaps the insolent brat and says, “Grow up, Arthur. You’d make a wonderful adult.”
(Steven Kalas writes a weekly column for Battle Born Media, which in the Bay Area includes the Pacifica Tribune, the Novato Advance, the San Rafael News Pointer, the Mill Valley Herald, the Ross Valley Reporter, the Twin City Times and the Sausalito Marin Scope. Steven Kalas welcomes comments and questions. You may write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)