“A Psalm of Life”: How To Make Your Life Sublime

“A cynic is not merely one who reads bitter lessons from the past; he is one who is prematurely disappointed in the future.” Sydney J. Harris (On the Contrary, 1962)

The mayor of Baltimore thinks I’m a cynic. He pretty much said so when we met. During the lunch conversation that followed, he glanced at me each time he mentioned the word. (“Cynicism is our greatest problem” was his theme.)

I may be a cynic when it comes to politics, but I try to avoid being one in my business life. Like a Snickers bar, cynicism feels incredibly good for a brief few minutes but depletes your energy and makes you fat.

I came across the following poem the other day. It’s by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a poet who isn’t taken very seriously by serious critics these days. It’s a little sentimental, but it asks an important question: What is a well-lived life, anyway? It also suggests an important truth: that it’s up to each of us to put meaning into our lives. It doesn’t come automatically.

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“A Psalm of Life: What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist”

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

Life is but an empty dream!

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

Dust thou art, to dust returnest,

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than to-day.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act — act in the living Present!

Heart within, and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us, then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.