The Unforgiving Minute

Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called “If,” in which he describes what he believes to be a life well-lived. While Kipling himself had some very questionable beliefs, I have always been very partial to “If,” and the life it describes. Overall, I think it is a simple set of verses that illustrates the middle ground one should seek through life, and I have found this premise of “everything in moderation, even moderation” to be a helpful guide to a life well-lived.

Looking closer, the final two couplets of the poem have always stuck out to me:

“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!”

I think a lot about what it means for a minute to be unforgiving, and the value of that minute in comparison to others. West Point graduate Craig Mullaney entitled his memoir The Unforgiving Minute in order to contrast his experience of studying war with actually participating in it. His memoir deals with a variety of topics, including the importance of his Roman Catholic faith and how he grew to respect others through an inter-faith marriage with his Hindu wife, his time studying as a Rhodes Scholar, his failure and later success at Ranger School and his first war experience. Mullaney’s memoir and the final lines of Kipling’s poem seem to hold singular moments as the seismic mover of a life. If what you do during the unforgiving minute creates your identity and decides your destiny, the value of a life lived can be boiled down from years to a single, more valuable minute.

I am unsure if I subscribe to this idea, but I do find it interesting. It made me think about the unforgiving minutes that may have formed my life, the minutes that paid more dividends than others, and I wondered what other people’s unforgiving minutes might be.

However, I later saw a video on the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers in which John Green talked about the magnitude of moments in shaping a destiny. His thesis focused on the idea that the value of some moments only reveal themselves long after they have passed, and as he put it:

“At least as far as I can tell, the course of your life isn’t ‘decided’ ever…There are hundreds of forks in the road every day you’re alive…Destiny is not something that happens all at once, it’s something that happens only in retrospect.”

For Green, it seems the unforgiving minute is worthwhile, but it does not necessarily give those who endure “the Earth and everything that’s in it.” The minutes that hold more value may be ones that are mundane, but only reveal their value when placed in the context of a life.