Updated: Sep 11, 2019
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
“Wild Geese,” Mary Oliver
Sometimes the news of how our world is unraveling, with too much ICE close to home and not enough of it at the poles where it should be, with the Amazon burning and so many other unspeakable horrors, is overwhelming. In her poem, Oliver offers another possible way forward.
She tells us:
“You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
It’s not about heroics or self-punishment. Rather, it begins by giving ourselves permission to be human.
She continues, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” Despair in isolation is unbearable. It can quickly lead us, as Joanna Macy reminds us, to paralysis or panic. This is why we need to turn to each other. By allowing ourselves to feel what we are feeling and by communicating this to another we come out of isolation and into community. With this, our vision changes as we shift from close-up, unidimensional, monochrome to a wide-angle, multi-varied, depth perspective. And we begin to notice more.
Meanwhile, she continues, “The world goes on…” In other words, yes, there is pain, yes, there is suffering, sometimes more of it than we can bear, but that is not the whole story.
“Meanwhile,” can be understood as, “At the same time as.” So, meanwhile, at the same time as a part of your body is in pain, more of your body is not in pain.
Meanwhile, at the same time as you speak of your despair, “The sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.”
Meanwhile, at the same time as you are suffering, “The wild geese, high in the clear blue air, are heading home again.”
What we attend to matters. The great psychologist, William James, tells us, “What we attend becomes reality.” We can choose what we attend to. Attending to what is background makes it foreground. Paying attention to what is well, to what is beautiful, highlights this in our everyday lives.
ICE has not gone away, the ice caps are still melting, and the forests are still burning but they are also the wild geese, who call to us, “Harsh and exciting – over and over announcing our place in the family of things.”
As we honor our pain for the world, we can also choose to pay attention to what is well, to what is beautiful. This brings out of despair and into the flow of the living Earth, where everyone belongs.