“Waste no more time arguing what a good person is. Be one.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
I like Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. It contains many of the beliefs I hold dear. I also enjoy what he has to say about cucumbers (we’ll come back to that). The quotation above would be part of my credo, which is your subject for today. A credo is a statement of basic beliefs. If we’re being purist about it, it sets out the principles of your irreducible faith, your moral certainties. But we are not going to be purist about it: we are, as usual, going to bugger about with it mercilessly.
The credo you write might indeed be a serious statement of your moral code. The language of deep faith is absolute – there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet – or I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. Your credo might be political or social rather than spiritual, but you will have that sonorous register of language in your mind. Do, however, give concrete examples – as Marcus does with that cucumber. ‘A cucumber is bitter? Then throw it away’, he says wisely. It’s not really about cucumbers. It’s a metaphor instructing us not to sweat the small stuff. So, give your ten commandments for friendship or the twelve articles of a good living – but illustrate them with real incident to make us believe in your authority. The best poems of this sort, like this one from Mary Oliver and this from Max Ehrmann, mix very plain language with grand ideas.
Perhaps you will focus on one specific lesson, rather than a whole catechism. After a workplace bully hung up on me, leaving me furious and powerless, a colleague gave me advice that became part of my own moral code. ‘People are the size they make you feel’ she said. You could focus on a single event like that, and that one lesson, rather than framing a whole philosophy. You might embed your life lesson in your title to make the poem itself lighter.
Then again, you might go fully frivolous or (better still) mix the very serious with the lightweight, as Baz Luhrmann does to great effect here. You will never have a better framework for dogma, so why not decree, with absolute authority, what are the best films made since 1985? We can use the well-worn language of a political creed to mock its own failures. Try this correction, for instance: “We hold these truths self-evident; that all WHITE men are created equal AND OBVIOUSLY NOT WOMEN”. Consider taking off on a flight of fancy to write the credo of a goldfish, a Labrador, a drunk…. even a poet. Write Twelve Articles of Faith in Labradors, for instance.
Feel free too, to take pot shots at orthodoxies which do not hold true for you. You may begin with ‘what’s so great about motherhood and apple pie anyway? I believe in one night stands, jerk rice and Starbucks muffins.’ You can critique someone else’s private belief system. For instance I might tackle this one, a thoughtful poem whose title admits its incompleteness – but which offends me with the embedded sexism of ‘everyone’s wife or girlfriend’. Remember that you do not have to be reasonable as a narrator. You can be angry, drunk, absent minded, a liar. You can be unlikeable, unstoppable, uncertain – or you can find your rambling certainties in the kitchen cupboard.
This exercise is a good place for piety, patriotism and sincere virtue: but the language of sincerity is often borrowed by hypocrites and false prophets, who make it sound hollow. If you do step into someone else’s shoes – be it Elizabeth I or a mushroom – ask yourself how they would speak. If a working collie dog wrote down its guiding principles would they be hectic, unstoppable, unpunctuated? What would be the slow philosophy of the sharp-toothed pike – would it be only THOU SHALT KILL, or would it be slow-slow-fast like the movements of that wily predator?
Write your own Desiderata, or set some other simple framework of what you advise others to do. As you will know if you read all the Instagram posts with hashtags like #veganboater or #YOLO, any statement of belief is also a strong affirmation of identity. Preach!
This project ends on Wednesday December 2nd, with the English lockdown. If you have enjoyed these prompts and want to pay it forward, please give something to the Trussell Trust who help to look after our food banks and people in the most urgent need, in these desperate times. You can make a donation here. Every little helps.