In light of the book that I just finished reading  there is an enigmatic couplet that deals with the relationship between flight and fight in the body’s natural defenses against threats:
Fight always for the highest attainable aim,
But never put up resistance in vain.
What makes the couplet more enigmatic is the fact that it is not a reference to some long lost translation of an ode by Horace or Virgil, but it is rather a poem by a scientist named Hans Selye, most famous for his insights regarding stress. Despite being a self-aware scientist, though, he was also a very poetic sort of soul, and felt that it was highly appropriate and safe for him to let his poetry help make his theory about stress easier to relate to. Before trying to untangle the meaning of this particular short poem, it might be worthwhile to examine the relationship between poetry and science, an often forgotten connection but one that was once well-known  .
An example of a poem that seeks to blend science and poetry is a poem by Joseph Strauss, designer of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the completion of that bridge, he wrote two poems. One of those poems was “The Mighty Task Is Done,” and its closing lines read as follows:
An Honored cause and nobly fought
And that which they so bravely wrought,
Now glorifies their deed,
No selfish urge shall stain its life,
Nor envy, greed, intrigue, nor strife,
Nor false, ignoble creed.
High overhead its lights shall gleam,
Far, far below life’s restless stream,
Unceasingly shall flow;
For this was spun its lithe fine form,
To fear not war, nor time, nor storm,
For Fate had meant it so .
These lines are less enigmatic than the poem which we began our examination, and a great deal less true, and less inspiring. Strauss tries to show honor and appreciation for the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, but does not seek to inspire others to great deeds. To honor those who accomplish great tasks is a noble thing, but it is far noble to be inspired to repeat their example ourselves. Indeed, the claims of Strauss about the nobility of the community were laughable, for the Golden Gate Bridge has long been stained by selfish urges and corrupt behaviors, and the beautiful and noble bridge itself is the site of many suicides . Far from being a site of the pure triumph of the elegant beauty of the suspension bridge, whose delicate balance between the compression of towers and the tension of its beautiful parabolic wires is the site of rapturous beauty and reflection, the Golden Gate is also a symbol of a corrupt and wicked city as well as the way in which high bridges are a lure to those who wish to end their lives in a decisive way. All that is beautiful can be corrupted, and in this world it often is. Sometimes even the scientist and the engineer are not sufficiently rational to recognize how their own achievements can be corrupted by the darkness that lies within our hearts.
It is worthy of interest that both Strauss’ poem and Selye’s couplet allude to fighting and struggle. Strauss envisions the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge as an intense struggle between mankind and nature. Selye too conceives of mankind’s struggle against stress. The difference between the two struggles is that the struggle to build the Golden Gate is a very rare struggle for a very monumental deed that does not occur very often or in the lives of very many people. It is a monument to past deeds, a sterile accomplishment that leads some to think that the great deeds of life have been done before we had the chance ourselves. On the other hand, Selye’s poem deals with a struggle that all are a part of, the struggle of the individual to successfully deal with the world outside and the world within, with one’s internal equilibrium as well as with the experiences and pressures of our life and of our world. This is a sort of heroism to which all can aspire, and a sort of struggle which all of us have to face in our own ways.
In life there is much struggle, but the nobility of struggle consists in fighting for high aims, not necessarily fighting against other people, who are often engaged in the same sorts of struggles that we are for respect and honor and love , but struggling against a hostile world. Since we all live in a hostile world and we all have to deal with experiences that shape us. In a way, we can be grateful to such experiences, even if they are difficult, for nobility is not born without struggle. Our characters are refined by trials, so that we are capable of greater love and compassion for others. If we did not suffer at all, we would not have any feeling for the sufferings of others in this dark world.
The second line of the couplet is very enigmatic and very difficult to understand. What does it mean to “never put up resistance in vain.” There are many things that we can struggle against in this world that are in vain. At least as I read this poem, and try to understand it, I see that we are to try to choose our fights wisely, to recognize the difference between our petty struggles as well as vitally important matters. Let us choose our fights in such a way as to fight both nobly and well, so that we may choose our fights wisely and so that we fight well. All too easily we fight for poor reasons or do not fight well enough to win. Let us never put up resistance in vain, because we only have so much energy with which to deal with the stresses of life, and when the weakest link breaks, we die.
 Rudyard Kipling, responsible for moving poetry like “The Sons Of Martha” and “If” and also a main motivator in the encouragement of the Order of the Engineer, of which I am a part, is but one aspect of this connection between poetry and science in his works. See the following blog entry, for example: