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Meeting Triumph and Disaster With the Ideal Man

Admittedly, I’ve never been a huge poetry fan. But in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate it, especially when the poems speak to the very things I’m dealing with. In these cases, poetry gives me strength and courage to walk the difficult road.

One of the poems that has hit me in the gut this year is Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—.” And as it deals with the very real difficulties of life, it seems prudent to share it along with a few thoughts. The poem begins:

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:

We live in a time when everything has spiraled out of control. Common sense is almost non-existent, and the few brave souls who have managed to keep their wits about them are often viewed as the crazy ones. For those labeled as crazy, the lies, the hatred, the canceling, and the shunning can be overwhelming. And the temptation to lash out and respond in kind is a very real threat. But as Kipling implies, the right response is to resist such a temptation and take the high road, with humility instead of pride and arrogance.

Kipling continues:

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 worn-out tools:

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!’”

In our social media age, meeting with Triumph and Disaster seems much more likely than once was the case, for just about anyone can have his own platform to speak his mind. Our words and ideas can catapult us to fame in a minute, but they can also tear our dreams to pieces just as quickly when others twist and misinterpret them. When such disasters happen—whether on social media or in the other ups and downs of life, be they relational, financial, or otherwise—the easy thing to do is give into self-pity and remain in a rut, unable to go on with life.

But Kipling refuses such a pathway, insisting instead that we pick ourselves up and press on, willing to take risks and begin again, even if the future looks bleak.

Kipling’s last stanza exhorts us to maintain our character as we go through life, diligently working, growing in knowledge and ability to stand before kings and influence great leaders. But the trick is to do so without becoming prideful and disconnected from the average, common folk:

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!

I first came across this poem while reading Lords of the Earth, a biography by Don Richardson about a man named Stanley Albert Dale. As a young boy, Dale memorized Kipling’s poem in school, clinging to its words to help him through a troubled childhood of abuse and bullying.

As he grew older, Dale returned to the poem and began to analyze it, and as he did so, he saw connections between the ideal man that Kipling described in his poem and Jesus Christ. Like Kipling’s ideal man, Christ was blamed and doubted and lied about and hated. He was humble, He was meek:

Throughout two thousand years of history, Stanley reflected, Christ has witnessed the twisting of His truth—particularly by unscrupulous ecclesiastics who make traps for fools.…

Doggedly, He ‘risks’ the ‘heap of all His winnings’ in history upon the faltering witness of followers in each new age.

And often, in human estimation at least, He “loses” and starts again at His beginnings, never departing from His original purpose.

All in preparation for the climax of history and the final verdict He is destined to wrest from both critics and enemies.

Stanley gazed intently at the open Bible before him.

Surely Kipling must have used Christ as model for his ideal man!

Today, Jesus Christ is still maligned, and His followers detested. Yet in his comparison between Kipling’s ideal man and Christ, Dale hits upon something very important.

We can look at this poem, be inspired by it like I am, and do our best to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, gritting our teeth as the world around us condemns our ideas and actions and convictions of truth. But we can never do it perfectly.

We can, however, know the One who did do it perfectly—that “ideal man”—who knows all our troubles and will hold our hands, helping us navigate through them.

Image Credit: Pxhere

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Annie Holmquist
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9 Comments

  • Avatar
    M. Taylor
    October 21, 2022, 1:29 am

    Amen! Miss Annie! Thank you for your conviction and courage to speak the truth.

    REPLY
  • Avatar
    Dorothy
    October 21, 2022, 2:22 am

    I understand why you like this poem. It’s long popularity proves you have a lot of people who agree with you.

    Unfortunately I have a problem with it. I have trouble with the flat assertion that unless the "son" achieves all of these things he is not a "Man." Kipling may have been inspired by Jesus, but he makes it clear that he is speaking to a person — one assumes the reader. Over and over Kipling repeats "If you can –." Any normal, fallible, human being who took what the poem says literally would think, "Then I can never be a Man. I can never achieve all of those objectives all of the time."

    I am sure those who love the poem will say, "Oh, those are things we should strive to achieve. Everyone understands no one will achieve them perfectly and all the time!" But that is not what the poem says.

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    • Avatar
      Swissarge@Dorothy
      October 21, 2022, 2:14 pm

      Kipling wrote this for his SON on his 16th birthday . It has been my favorite guiding light in my life, and both my sons and daughter were equally motivated by it’s timeless message.

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  • Avatar
    Sr. Anne Marie Walsh
    October 21, 2022, 2:46 am

    As a writer myself, I very much appreciate your work. I particularly love the cultural observations and commentaries set within a framework of a living faith! The real answers are found there and you are not afraid to point it out!

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  • Avatar
    William Gillin
    October 21, 2022, 3:24 am

    Excellent article, Annie. I’ve heard that some critics claim that Kipling sets a high standard that a son must meet to win his father’s approval. I don’t think that’s true. It does set standards that every good person should aspire to. Just as every Christian should aspire to be like Christ. Great passage by Richardson about Stanley Dale. Thanks for this.

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  • Avatar
    Kenneth LaFave
    October 21, 2022, 7:09 am

    Wonderful poem, but I had never made the Christ connection. Thanks for this.

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