Heidi Ferguson Media

Heidi Ferguson Media

The Day I Finally Understood "If"

“If” by Rudyard Kipling is a poem many find influential. It is a tremendous consolidation of wisdom. Pull up a copy. You’re going to want it for easy reference.

Middle school me opens a book. It is the English textbook of a religon-based homeschool curriculum. I don’t remember which year, and I don’t remember how it was decided, but my task was to memorize the full page of text that is the poem “If.”

That poem never left my memory. It still takes me a moment to remember which of the four stanzas comes next, but the whole poem has been rattling around up there for two full decades.

It always overwhelmed me. How could I possibly remember this entire to-do list on how to be a proper person? Even with it memorized, it was impossible to recall and follow in the moment.

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

When too tired (or a little tipsy), I tend to larger words and more complex verbal arrangements. “I feel a perceptible decline in my mental acuity” is what I said once instead of, “I think I’m getting drunk.” So, I struggled with that line in particular. It was a source of shame. Any achievement, any unconventional yet natural phrasing, had to be downplayed. Otherwise, I would cause unacceptable offense to others. And it’s another topic unto itself how I feel about my body. (Or, more accurately, how I don’t feel.)

What I realized the morning of July 3, 2022 is that that line is not about looking shabby and neglected. It’s not about deliberately talking foolish. That poem is not a list of assignments.

That poem is one concept, expressed in a myriad of ways:

Follow your inner bellwether.

What causes you to transform inside leads the way, is the sheep wearing the bell at the front of the flock that is you. After which all the rest of the inner flock follows.

It doesn’t matter if there’s a torrential rainstorm full of thunder and lightning around you. It doesn’t matter if there are wolves and steep cliffs and people blaming you for the state of the world and their own minds. It doesn’t matter if your enemies are after you, or if you’re betrayed by a friend. It doesn’t matter if you are praised like a god or if you lose everything.

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!

It's about existing outside of what others might think of you and instead focusing on getting the work done. It's about experiencing life full-tilt with every second of every minute you possess.

So that line, not to look too good nor talk too wise? That line never applied to me. That line is directed at the person who tries to complicate their language in order to impress others. Who doesn't talk how they naturally would talk in deliberate effort to make themselves feel valid and worthy from the responses they'll get to such language. It's for the person who wears clothes that express status instead of self.

You can look good. You can talk wise.

But do not make it an affectation because an affectation is for the benefit of others.

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;

Have dreams. Have thoughts. But your dreams do not define you, and having smart thoughts is purposeless on its own.

Become the person who is so focused on their own internal change that all of "If" sends the same message. And then—and only then—can you follow it day by day, minute by minute. And without having it memorized.