I once read a book on brain science that would seem to explain our almost primitive emotional response to the repetition of sounds and phrases. Turns out our brain's ability to recognize such patterns was the foundation upon which we evolved language. And in its more primitive form, we still celebrate our visceral attraction to patterns of sound, rhythm, and rhyme through our love of poetry, music, and dance. (What other explanation could there possibly be for the success of Sir Mix-a-lot's Baby Got Back?)
All of which is my way of introducing the notion that when you need a boost of inspiration, confidence, or courage, nothing serves like a few measures of well-crafted verse. Below are some favorite examples I've collected over the years. When I need a little motivation, encouragement, or courage to make a change in my life, these are some of the standards that I turn to.
- The Road Less Travelled, Robert Frost. Is there anyone in the western world that isn't familiar with this poem? Well, there's a reason. There comes a time in everyone's life when we contemplate choosing a "path less travelled" - pursuing a dream, for instance - and this poem feels like a beloved grandfather patting you on the back and telling you: "Go ahead, child: you won't regret it." Pure, uncomplicated reassurance.
- If, Rudyard Kipling. You don't have to be a boy to be inspired by this sagacious advice from a father to his son on the subject of how to live a worthwhile life. This paeon to the virtues of hard work, tolerance, tenacity, modesty, and moral courage reminds us all that what makes us great isn't the things that happen to us, but how we choose to react to the things that happen to us.
- Phenomenal Woman, Maya Angelou. With apologies to all you phenomenal men out there (hey, I included If for you), this celebration of femininity is just the ticket for women who feel insecure about the way they look or interact with the world, reminding us that while beauty may be sexy, confidence is a thousand times sexier.
- Not In Vain, Emily Dickinson. For all those people who have laid in bed in the morning looking for a reason to get up, this sweet little verse reminds us that even our smallest actions may have worthy consequences. (Just in case you've somehow missed any of the 1000 showings of It's A Wonderful Life on television over the years.)
- Be Strong, Maltbie Davenport Babcock. If you aren't in the mood for Emily Dickinson's coddling, let Ms. Babcock whip you into shape with this fierce and unforgiving call to action. She isn't going to let you forget that "It matters not how deep entrenched the wrong,/ How hard the battle goes, the day, how long./ Faint not, fight on!"
- Invictus, William Earnest Henry. Can't be coincidence that this is also the title of a movie that explores the struggle over apartheid in South Africa. My head is bloody, but unbowed ... these words from the poem could be written on Nelson Mandela's memorial one day. But my favorite lines comes later, because there comes a time when all of us need to be reminded: I am the master of my fate:/ I am the captain of my soul.