If (transcript)

Geraldine Ferraro: When I first read Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” I was 12, and at a rather critical time in my life. I’d lost my father 4 years earlier but was still having difficulty working through his death. I was starting high school as the boarder in a semi-cloistered convent and I was filled with emotion. I needed someone or something to talk to me. I needed to know how to handle things. I needed assurance that I could get past the present and make something of myself in the future.

When I read “If,” I was convinced that Rudyard Kipling was talking to me, but I also believed that he spoke about my mother, a widow at 39 who had wonderful dreams for her children yet faced the reality of life with a determination to not make dreams her master, a woman who was able to face the tough times without ever complaining. My only problem with the poet was that, in framing the portrait, there was only a picture of a boy. It was only what that boy would become if he were a success.

Of course, that shouldn’t have surprised me. Kipling considered men superior; it was a lasting theme in his stories. He told the story of the complicated life of India in his prizewinning novel through the eyes of poor orphan boy Kim. As I got older, every once in a while I’d come across the poem and I’d reread it, and each time the poet seemed to be nudging me, egging me on, and speaking to me. No longer the insecure child in a lonely boarding school but the wise mother, politician, and a person who had enjoyed success far beyond my mother’s wildest dreams but also experienced some dark moments beyond anything I could have expected.

What I found out later was that the poem “If” was not meant as advice to a young boy. It comes out of the story Brother Square-Toes, which is about Philadelphia and George Washington at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The first verse speaks to the decisions, misunderstandings, and public pressures that confront statesmen with some reference to those who have to make those decisions and what comes out of the balance of the poem is the desirability of calmness, patiences, and the avoidance of arrogance. The need for balance between speculation and action, between success and failure, and the ability to turn apparent defeat into victory.

I wish there were an “If” for girls, but the reason this poem endures as one of my favorites, despite the ending, is because “If” teaches character and strength, a lesson that is as pertinent to this senate candidate-grandmother as it was to that young girl 50 years ago.

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:

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!’

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!