Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072
Church School: 10:45 AM
With Worn-Out Tools
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 24, 2010
IF by Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz
I don’t have much of a sense of humor.
But there is one old joke that always brings a smile to my rather stern and dour face. It’s a bit of doggerel that, as it turns out, comes from an old postcard, dating from quite early in the twentieth century. Actually, it’s from what’s called a “saucy seaside postcard”: referring to those somewhat provocative cards sold at small shops in British coastal towns. It’s actually from the best selling “saucy seaside postcard” of all time, one that eventually sold over 6 million copies.
It pictures a young man and a young woman, sitting under a burgeoning, leafy tree on what looks to be a rather lovely spring day. She is very attractive indeed, quite saucy in her bright red dress; he, on the other hand, is wearing thick spectacles, and is reading from some thick volume of literature. He asks the young girl: “Do you like Kipling?”
To which she responds, quite demurely, “I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled.”
As I said, that little entendre never fails to strike my funny bone. I could tell that story endlessly. (I probably already have, but I don’t remember.)
But I don’t think I would find it all that funny were it not for The Book of Knowledge. (“Ah, yes,” you say, “now, at last, the edifying part of the sermon begins.”)
I grew up with the Book of Knowledge. It was one of my closest childhood friends. All twenty, leatherette-bound volumes of the 1952 edition, which my mother bought (from a door-to-door salesman, I think), for my two older brothers, just a year or so before I was born. (I even have amid the clutter on my desk at home an old snapshot of me as an infant-- about four months old, I guess, because there are Christmas cards on top of the television, and I was born in September—so that would make me four months old-- propped up in a big old easy chair, surrounded by stuffed animals and toys, my mother smiling proudly and lovingly on the side—and just behind her, on the bookshelf, just at my left hand, are the twenty volumes of The Book of Knowledge.
In the picture, they still have their dust jackets on. Those are now long
gone. But the books remain—all twenty volumes; now, they have pride of place in
my study at the parsonage.
Because, you see, I like… Kipling. More particularly, because of The Book of Knowledge, there is a place carved in my psyche for Kipling, or at least, for that bit of him found in volume 7, page 2530, that begins:
IF you can keep your head when all about you
It was reading The Book of Knowledge at home, alone, after school, throughout my elementary years, that introduced me to the world of poetry, as much as anything I learned in school, I think. There, with pride of place, lay Rudyard Kipling’s “If”, along with other “old favorites” like Edgar Guest’s “It Couldn’t Be Done” and “Woodman, Spare that Tree,” by George Pope Morris, and, of course, Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”—which those of us born and bred in New England knew just had to be (really) about the Red Sox (because, of course, this was all during that dreadful interregnum between 1918 and 2004, when our own “Mighty Casey” seemed to strike out all too often).
But it was Kipling’s “If” that seemed to go deepest. It was a poem that would not let me go. Even as I got older, and fashions changed and then changed again, and my politics went from left to far left to not quite so far left, and my theology went from “none of the above” to “all of the above”—“If” remained there inside of me. It abided. I pondered it in my heart (and in my mind) from time to time. Like an old friend who comes back into your life, after you’ve been apart for years, and you resume the conversation as though you’ve never left one another’s side.
I remembered the poem through all those years, and could recite it all from memory (well, almost all of it), cold. In recent days, it seems that I’ve been reciting it more and more often , as though sensing there are still lessons there within for me to learn—as though there were in those old values important lessons for the new age in which we now live.
But even though I remembered the poem, it occurred to me recently that I didn’t know much about it, other than it had been written by Rudyard Kipling, sometime in the early twentieth century. I knew that it was a well known poem, especially popular on greeting cards at times of graduation, it seemed. Many people have heard of it. As Kipling said shortly after it was published, and had gotten legs of its own:
“Among the verses [I wrote],” he said, “was one set called ‘If,’ which escaped from the book, and for a while ran about the world… Once started, the mechanization of the age made them snowball themselves in a way that startled me… Twenty-seven Nations of the Earth translated them into their seven-and-twenty tongues, and printed them on every sort of fabric.”
Even in its own day, “If” “went viral” (as we would say today). And with familiarity, often, there comes contempt. Kipling in general, and “If” in particular, became seen as cliché, trite, sentimental, just so much blather encased in strictly rhyming iambic pentameter.
“If” became, for me, like a dirty little secret. Kipling became a guilty pleasure. Not something one discussed in “advanced” company. Not if you wanted to be considered “relevant” or “hip” or “really intellectual”. He was so old. So passé. So pre-post-modern (pre-modern, for that matter). So politically incorrect.
Well, Kipling was politically incorrect because his politics were incorrect. They were wrong: all that talk about the “white man’s burden” and the “lower races” of colonized people being “half devil and half child”. Ideas like those are garbage that deserve to be tossed in the rubbish bin of history, along with other racist and sexist notions.
Speaking of sexism, there’s more than a little of that in the poem “If” as well. “And which is more, you’ll be a man, my son,” the poem concludes. The male nouns are not accidents. They’re not there just because the poem is addressed to Kipling’s own son (it’s not, really). They’re there because the poem is about leadership—about self-mastery—about personal autonomy; those were things of which women were not considered capable (by most people), back when “If” was written in 1909. (When, just a short time before, Elizabeth Cady Stanton delivered her famous “Solitude of the Self” address, and argued that women ought to be given rights because they, like men, have unique and autonomous souls of their own, it was considered crazy, far out, a radical notion.)
But I seem to remember another little saying about friendship that goes:
“A friend is one to whom you can pour out the contents of your heart, chaff and grain alike. Knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away.”
The same is true of literary friends, as well, I suppose. We can forgive our teachers’ shortsightedness and bigotry, if they still have something worthwhile to teach us. We can still find, amidst the stagnant, Edwardian, colonialist, imperialist, sexist, misogynist (and god knows what else-ist) swamp out of which “If” emerged those pearls of great price, which can be of use to us along our journeys.
So why does this poem still appeal to me? What does it have to teach? Let’s take a closer look.
The first stanza talks about self-confidence; but more, it talks about maintaining one’s integrity, one’s sense of self, in the face of a world that is experiencing what the Germans call Zerrisenheit: “torn-to-pieces hood”. The world is losing its head, and wants to drag you down into the maelstrom; even more, it’s blaming you for their problems. The cool mind (the head that’s still connected) can say, even in the midst of chaos and confusion, “This is what I believe. There are my abiding values. I will cling to them though all else be lost.”
Others will doubt. But we must maintain our belief in what we believe.
But not stubbornly and pigheadedly. We must “make allowances for their doubting too”.
Humilitas enters the field—deep and genuine humility—a critically important (and often overlooked) human virtue. Humility allows us to discern the difference between the messenger and the message; it allows us to understand where our own little prone-to-error selves end, and where our deeper values begin.
“If you can wait and not be tired by waiting.”
The counsel of patience. Things worth achieving seldom come as quickly as we hope. Or as we plan. We can set an August deadline for something, and before we know it, it’s September… then November… then December… then it’s (say) January 20th again, and the goal is still not achieved. But as Reihold Niebuhr reminds us, things worth doing are seldom achieved in one lifetime (or in one term of office); therefore, we are sustained by hope. By hope, and by patience, which prepares the ground for hope.
“Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies.”
Lying reduces us to the level of those we loathe.
“Or being hated, don’t give way to hating.”
How much more evidence do we need to prove the fact that we become the things we hate?
“And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”
Self-righteousness is perhaps the most withering blight of all in human relations. If you’re the smartest kid in the class, keep it to yourself; people don’t want to be lorded over with that kind of arrogance. Self-righteousness not only poisons our relations with others; it poisons our relationships to our inner selves, too. When we indulge in self-righteousness, we start believing our own p.r. We think we can do no wrong (which blinds us to the wrong we are /i>doing.). We cast humility to the wind, and we become walking caricatures of our deepest values.
“If you can dream and not make dreams your master.”
Dreams are important. Dreams are what pull us human ones out of the lethargy of things as they are, and guide us toward what can be.
Hold fast to dreams /i>[wrong Langston Hughes]
for when dreams die
life is a broken-winged bird
Kipling is not disparaging our having dreams. “Nothing happens if not first a dream,” said Sandburg. But if we make our dreams alone our “masters”, then we will never take the action needed to make them real, and to turn private thought into public reality.
Likewise, “If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.”
Our thoughts can inspire us; they can nourish and feed us. But if we don’t get out of our heads—if our lives begin and end with thoughts alone—then the world will never be made a better place for anyone.
“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/ And treat those two imposters just the same.”
Those are perhaps the most famous lines in the entire poem. Words that
are, they say, inscribed over the entrance to the courts at
We need to engage in life for the long haul, and remember that there are at least three full acts in any of these dramas we are living (if not a full Shakesperian five). It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, and even if she’s signing at the end of nine innings, and our team’s on the bottom, there are always more games yet to play. And more seasons that will follow this one.
So, don’t fly the white flag too soon. And don’t plan your victory parade too soon. And maybe the lesson for this week is: don’t capitulate principle on the basis of a single Senate race (even if it’s in the greatest state in the nation).
“If you can bear to hear the words you’ve spoken/ Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.” (I didn’t know that Rudyard Kipling knew Rush Limbaugh!)
“Or watch the things you gave your life to broken”
(How often we invest our time, talent, and treasure in things that just don’t work out--)
“And stoop and build ‘em up with worn-out tools”
Those are words that speak to me more and more the older I get. We are tired, we are weary, but we aren’t beaten and worthless. In spite of the aches and pains (inside and out), we’re up the next day, back at work for that which we believe—because what else is there for us to do?
“If you can make one heap of all your winnings/ And risk it in one turn of pitch and toss”—
Freedom lies in being bold. Moderation in defense of liberty is no virtue.
“And lose.” (Because we will lose, pretty darn close to half the time, I’d say, over the course of a life.In sports. In politics. In love. In all manner of human endeavors.)
“And start again at your beginning,”
(There is great joy in new beginnings. The eternal easter that lies within our souls.)
“And never breathe a word about your loss.”
(Don’t whine! Get up, and start over.)
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew,”
(Sinew—such a lovely old word; sort of reminds me of the “alabaster
cities” in “
“to serve your turn long after they are gone”
We do not act for our own times alone. What we do today has ramifications down the road, and through the generations. As Longfellow put it:
“And so hold on when there is nothing in you/ Except the will which says to them ‘Hold on!’”
Now, Stanza Four, the home stretch (aren’t you glad Kipling didn’t write a six stanza poem?)
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings nor lose your common touch.”
All manner people have something to teach us, no matter how lowly or how exalted their particular stations in life. One of the great joys of being human is being part of that incredible procession of dear souls with whom we are called to share this life.
The trick is to swim in the sea of our common humanness, without becoming too common. To maintain our personal integrity without being haughty and isolated from others and condescending toward even those with whom we disagree.
Living in human community can be very hard: Yes, both foes and loving friends will hurt us. But we must cling to the rock of our own inner fortitude and integrity. All must count with us. But at the end of the day, it is our own face we’ll see in the mirror.
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”
Kipling is not, I think, advocating cramming into that sixty seconds more activity than any human being can accomplish. He’s not telling us to do-do-do-endlessly, more and more, and always faster. I don’t think so.
There is more to life than increasing its speed.
We will each cover a different distance in that sixty seconds allotted us.
The secret is to live that minute to the full, by living out each and every one of those sixty seconds. And not surrendering any one of them, until there is absolutely nothing left of it.
Then—when we have lived our life to the full-- ours is the Earth and everything that’s in it. Then we will know the full power of what it means to be a mature and wise human being on this good earth.