Things are different every time you encounter them. It's like not being able to cross the same river twice. The river has changed, and so have you.
The first time I read Rudyard Kipling's "If" was when my scout leader gave it to us to read. I must have been fourteen. It was the first time we had met him. He took us for a long hike down a deep wadi (a narrow valley between two mountains). When we were completely exhausted, he sat us down and gave us each a copy to read. Then we had to make our way back up again.
Our scout leader was only three years older than us, but even at such a young age, he managed to affect us all deeply. He was one of those rare animals: the natural educator.
A few years later, during his army service, his jeep drove over a mine in the Jordan valley. For years I have mourned the loss of a great man, that didn’t get to fulfill his life’s goal, that didn’t get to make a difference. But he did make a difference. He made a difference to me.
Today, when I read Kipling’s “If”, I am not the same person. And it is not the same poem that I am reading as the one I read that first time, sitting on a rock in a Wadi on the eastern slope of Mount Carmel, on an autumn afternoon just before sunset. I was impressed by it back then, but I didn't really understand it. I think this was as it should have been, seeing I was only fourteen. Life was just beginning. We tend to idolize the freshness of youth, thus underrating the wisdom and beauty of experience.
But still, even after all these years, whenever I come across it, I think of my gentle, sensitive, seventeen year old scout leader, Meidad.
[A thought: To those who dislike Kipling's work because of his racist, sexist and whatever other tendencies, I say - don't be silly! The man lived in a different age. So "If" is written to a man in a world in which only men mattered; so Kipling didn't like Jews (and today we are so very popular...). Kipling was part of his world, not ours. Does this render this poem any less sagacious? I think not. I think it possesses a timeless wisdom that is beyond who Kipling the man may have been, and if we choose to reject it because of our prejudices, than we are the poorer.]
Update: John Williams writes to me that Rudyard Kipling's only son was killed in WWI.