I, like many, struggle with learning natural lessons from being human. Every time I am reminded of my limitations or fail at meeting my own or others expectations, it is a relatively painful lesson worth learning. I have chosen to elaborate on a poem from Mary Oliver. Her writing, among others, has been such a source of strength and encouragement to me these last few months.
by Mary Oliver
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 your 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.
So much energy is devoted to being good. Whether one is religious or just striving to be a decent person, no one wants their actions to be scrutinized and wants to be thought of as “good.” There is so much freedom in this poem to take the pressure off of perfectionists and people pleasers, like myself. It is not saying that one should not strive to do good to others, but simply to say one should not need to “walk on your knees” throughout life. For me, I have strived very hard to please others and make it my responsibility to make and keep them happy. When unsuccessful, I would strive harder or think there must be something wrong with me which makes the other person not pleased. I have gone so far as being abandoned by the ones I have walked on my knees for. As one who has suffered much grief and loss, I find hope and great inspiration by the phrase, “the world goes on”. It does friends. It really does. Life goes on. The earth continues spinning, and love is still what makes it go around. I take a deep breath and exhale as I write this essay, imagining a spring hike after a long, cold and dark winter. The flowers will bloom again. The birds will sing and the sun will shine to usher in warmth and healing.
I have sat with individuals and families who have been distraught after having their children taken into custody of the state. While the circumstances presented rightful cause, the devastation of a parent doing the best they can with the tools they have been given – coupled with the defeat that their best is not good enough –can be debilitating. The pain and fear can be paralyzing. I have been blessed with the opportunity to sit in grief with such individuals, helped assess the rubble, provide a hand-up and walk them through the steps of self-sufficiency and eventual reunification. Not every family is capable of staying the course. Empathy is necessary in such situations and there is little room for judgment, when one is already so harsh on themselves.
I have been amazed at the human capacity to be resilient. Resilience is such an incredible attribute which, I believe, means so much more than getting back on the horse. Sometimes human resiliency is recognizing no matter how many times you get on the horse, riding the horse is not what you were cut out for in the first place. Sometimes resiliency is not just the tenacity of not giving up, but the ability to recognize when it is time to do something completely different. It is okay to not ride the horse if riding the horse is not your thing. Skip, jump, dance or ride the bus – but one way or another, we will get there. Perhaps resiliency is more about acknowledging our limitations, facing resistance and choosing to live life in the fullest whether we choose to get back on or take a different approach altogether.
My son, who just turned six, used to have meltdowns over the littlest things. When children react with so much emotion on the outside, I am reminded of how often I feel the same way on the inside. Sometimes getting older and becoming more “mature” is simply learning how to conceal real feelings and express them in a more socially acceptable way. But what I would give to have a full on tantrum sometimes. The author’s words remind me of the importance of sitting with my child in his struggle and inquiring of his concerns. Other times it is important to model the value of trying again. Regardless of the outcome – whether he becomes a star soccer player or gets is shoes on the right feet every time – perhaps the most important learning experience is understanding that he is not going to get it right every time, and that is absolutely okay.
This morning, we had breakfast at Slappy Cakes in SE Portland. Each table comes with its own griddle and the customers get to make their own pancakes and pay ten times as much as making pancakes at home. Sometimes the experience is worth the price. We experimented making all sorts of crazy shapes and images. None of our cakes came out perfect, and I have learned to be completely alright with that. As we were leaving, I could not help but notice the family seated right next to us who were just beginning to make their own pancakes. Each of their pancakes was a perfect circle and all I could think about was messing it up for them. I was already bothered by the micromanagement parenting of their child and the fact that everything about their outward image, hair, and clothing were perfect. To me, it was perfectly annoying. Remembering a scene in “Away We Go” – with John Krasinski (Burt) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (LN)– when Burt took LN’s toddler for a spin in a stroller around the house to prove a point about LN’s ridiculous parenting standards. While walking past this family’s table, I wanted to squirt batter all over their griddle and put their kid in a stroller and run around the restaurant in absolute fun-filled chaos. I wanted to mess up their hair and shout “You do not have to be perfect to be loved or liked! It is okay to make mistakes! The sun still shines! The world goes on!” Of course, I did not act outwardly upon my impulse, but so much desired to express that life is so much more fulfilling when perfection is not the primary goal.
Some folks naturally live out the poetic expression of the Wild Geese, as Oliver depicts. Others of us have experienced painful events and come to a place of brokenness, only to come to a place of freedom. Freedom from lonely, isolating, and inhibiting boundaries and unrealistic expectations is necessary to a more fulfilling life. Freedom from striving to be what we are not. We do not have to walk throughout life on our knees, my friends. We do not need to grovel for being human. Acknowledge and repent for sins done to others, indeed. But we do not have to stay there.
In Daring Greatly, author Brene Brown beautifully describes the difference between living in shame and feeling guilty. Shame says we are a shameful person while feeling guilty is a passing emotion which can motivate us to make things right. Shame keeps us in one place feeling like dung, while guilt can motivate us to move forward.
One of my favorite songs is “ I Have Made Mistakes” by The Oh Hellos. There is a line which resonates with me each time I hear it: “I have made mistakes, but I have learned from them.” The chorus continues, “The sun it does not cause us to grow, it is the rain that will strengthen our soul, it will make you whole.”
Human resiliency is about empathy and an acceptance of imperfection. It is recognizing the world still “goes on”, and the need to love ourselves and the space we find ourselves in. While life is unpredictable, the struggle is impossible to avoid. Living according to our own expectations or others is unfulfilling and can dampen hopes and dreams. I am convinced that living free and breathing deeply during trials is closer to the journey towards goodness than striving for perfection and walking on our knees.
Oliver, Mary. “Wild Geese.” Dream Work. Berkeley: Black Oak, 1993. N. pag. Print.
Away We Go – Trailer. Dir. Sam Mendes. Perf. John Krasinski, Maggie Gyylanhaal. 2009. Film.
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham, 2012. Print.
The Oh Hellos. Through the Deep, Dark Valley. 2012. CD.