I have been doing a bad job of collecting inspirational sayings since the early 1980s, usually writing them down in a notebook which I would then proceed to lose. Every once in a while I would redo it. It is a lot easier now on the internet where we can just cut and paste, so I recently recreated an earlier collection since gone to the dustbin. Some of these words still get me misty eyed (I know, big baby) but most are just inspirational. I wish I could say I have lived up to these fine words, but probably the best most of us can say is that they represent what we aspire to be.
Let’s start with this one which gets me wiping my eyes every January. You probably just heard it or at least part of it. And I ask you, when is the last time you heard an entire speech so moving, so perfectly delivered, since this one? Usually, these days, when we say that someone made a great speech, we mean we liked one, two or three lines from it. This one was as close to perfect as you can get in its entirety, as much a poem as a speech, and, unfortunately, way too long to print the whole thing here, so I’ll skip to the very end where I get misty eyed.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Martin Luther King, Jr., from the I Have a Dream speech, Washington, D.C., 1964.
This next one is, to me, the apogee of inspirational words and one of the few poems not a limerick, that I can actually understand. Its advice may be too hard to live by, but what if we could?
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 all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath 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!
Learned Hand is probably the most respected judge in America who never sat on the Supreme Court of the United States. He did, however, serve for a long time on the United States Court of Appeals in New York. He may have written better than any judge before or after him, as is demonstrated in a speech made during World War II. I wish congress would read it every morning instead of opening with a prayer.
What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws, and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.
The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. And now in that spirit, that spirit of an America which has never been, and which may never be; nay, which never will be except as the conscience and courage of Americans create it; yet in the spirit of that America which lies hidden in some form in the aspirations of us all; in the spirit of that America for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying; in that spirit of liberty and of America I ask you to rise and with me pledge our faith in the glorious destiny of our beloved country. P. 190-191, The Spirit of Liberty (1944).
Or, maybe on every other day, congress could read these words from my all time favorite American, in a speech made just before the constitutional convention was going to vote up or down on the proposal before them. I can't think of a greater or wiser man.
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error.
. . . . I doubt too whether any other Convention we can obtain, may be able to make a better Constitution. For when you assemble a number of men to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men, all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected? It therefore astonishes me, Sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does; and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the Builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another's throats. Thus I consent, Sir, to this Constitution because I expect no better, and because I am not sure, that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors, I sacrifice to the public good.
. . . . On the whole, Sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.
At some point in my life I realized that most of my heroes were not known for dressing well; in fact, some were known for the opposite. I can’t say if I am attracted to them because of that, or if it just means we think alike. This one is perhaps more defensive on my part than inspirational, but here I go quoting Jesus.
And why are you anxious about what to wear? Consider the
lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they
spin. And yet I say to you, that even Solomon in all his glory
is not arrayed like one of these.
- Jesus Christ according to Matthew 6:28-29
The following speech inspired millions of fighting men and has been seen on this site before. He and MLK are alone in this century as great speech makers.
"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Winston S.Churchill in the darkest hours of World War II
Clint Eastwood put a similar thought much shorter in one of my all time favorite movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales – 1975.
Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you're not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. 'Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That's just the way it is.
It’s not all about winning though. Sometimes it is about having the wisdom to say “No mas”. This next speech is, it turns out, possibly apocryphal and from the mind of a reporter who put them in the words of an Indian chief who, along with his tribe, had lost a frantic and deadly race to safety in 1877. I dont think it matters much who said it.
I am tired of fighting.
Our chiefs are killed.
Looking Glass is dead.
Toohulhulsote is dead.
The old men are all dead.
It is the young men who say no and yes.
He who led the young men is dead.
It is cold and we have no blankets.
The little children are freezing to death.
My people, some of them,
Have run away to the hills
And have no blankets, no food.
No one know where they are-
Perhaps they are freezing to death.
I want to have time to look for my children
And see how many of them I can find.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired.
My heart is sad and sick.
From where the sun now stands
I will fight no more forever.
Chief Joseph of the Nez Pierce Indian tribe
This following statement, not really a speech, was quite brief, but means a lot to me right now, as I prepare to leave the island and state that has been my home for nearly a half century. I have never had to to suffer the inflictions Lincoln did and will face none of the trials he would in the future. Unlike him, I expect to return here many times in the future. Despite that, he still manages to convey a melancholy feeling that I completely understand.
My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
These next two are by Mark Twain and are swiped from the gazillion wise and funny things he wrote. I will start with my favorite, the one I would take as a motto, if we did such things these days.
Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world - and it never will.
- - -
Spirit has fifty times the strength and staying-power of brawn and muscle.
I think I will leave off with words from a great American cartoonists, who understood that both inspiration and defeat must be shrugged off with a little humor. I believe that I used this as my favorite quote in my college year book (1981) and I love it still.
Speak softly, and carry a beagle.
Feel free to chime in with your own favorite.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .