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A Psalm of Life: My Reflections

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | February 23, 2013

"Let us then be up and doing, 
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait."
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” this great American poet has left us with an incredible challenge that is uniquely applicable at the start of a New Year. For those of us who make resolutions or we update our life goals for the New Year, this poem is rich with substance. But even if this is not your practice, this poem also has a message for you.
 
From his very first words Tell me not in mournful numbers, Life is but an empty dream! to the last stanza which begins with Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Longfellow oozes inspiration and hope. For him, life has enormous meaning that includes much more than meets the eye. 

In the second stanza his words are passionate 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. The reader cannot help being transported beyond the daily routines of life to the reality that life is made up of something greater … something more profound than dirty dishes and slow traffic and devastating hurricanes. 

Later he challenges the reader Be not like dumb, driven cattle! Be a hero in the strife! Just because life is messy, Longfellow does not allow us to be like dumb cattle going through the motions without purpose or with meaning. He calls for heroic response.

My favorite stanza is number 7. It is perhaps the most quoted from this entire poem. Lives of great men all remind us; We can make our lives sublime. And, departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time. Around us are countless examples of men and women who refuse to let life beat them down. Through the most horrific circumstances, they refuse to surrender their resolve. 

Malala Yonsufazai is someone like that. On October 9, 2012 this little 15 year old Pakistani girl on her way home from school was shot by two Pakistani Taliban men, once in the head and once in the neck, as she got off her school bus.

In 2008, the Taliban decided to prohibit girls in her area to acquire an education. With her father’s permission, she began a blog under a different name. But when her father nominated her for a peace prize in 2009, Malala’s identity was revealed. The Taliban went on a rampage destroying hundreds of schools with the leader denouncing education for girls. In spite of that, Malala never wavered in her belief that girls had a right to an education.

In spite of early ominous reports, it appears she will make a full recovery. Who can hear that story without being inspired? Millions around the world see her footprints on the sands of time. 

Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Winston Churchill, Billy Graham, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and so many more have made footprints for us. Longfellow also knew the responsibility we have to leave footprints of our own. He calls for a kind of bifocal vision — before and behind — if we are to live life with meaning. 

With boldness he ends his poem: Let us, then be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait. We must not sit on the sidelines. We must not slumber. We must not stop. 

We must be up! We must be doing! We must have heart! We must achieve! We must pursue! We must be up and doing in the workplace! We must be up and doing in our homes! We must be up and doing in our communities! With a heart for any fate, we must be up and doing! 

We must!

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer