You do not have to be good!
Today I was reminded vividly and physically about the value of deeply believing the sentiments of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. One I have shared many times in teaching and training programs, one that I find guides my life these days. It reminds me when I have the presence to remember: “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.”
Standing in the queue this morning at the post office I overheard a woman, a little younger than me, I think, talking on the phone:
“Do you think she’ll be let out this weekend?
I understand…, it depends on her weight tomorrow?
We’ll come by to see her this evening?
That she sees that we mean business.
Got to be harsh sometimes…”
It seemed from the conversation, and this is all conjecture on my part of course, that this woman’s daughter was in a ward, lock up unit, for anorexia.
Listening to the conversation and thinking about this young woman/girl locked away from her family for her own good left me feeling bereft and overwhelmed. I found myself emotionally activated with feelings of distress and sadness, feeling tearful, unable to breath, taking gulps of air as my chest constricted and heart pounded away.
I am not sure what has happened to the thick walls of my emotional protection that I had spent years erecting and keeping up and in the recent past seem to have tumbled down, leaving me with paper thin porous barriers against the insults of this world, especially it’s seemingly ever present insidious violent nature. I often feel buffeted by suggestions of violence and images of aggression, seeing it on screen, in the news, experiencing it in the daily interplay of human beings, or as in this case the realm of institutional care that for the benefit of treatment treats people inhumanely, that resorts to locking a young person away from her family to force feed as a way of dealing with the internal distress of eating disorders, that we find ourselves with few other viable options or solutions. Being intimately aware that this is so much more complex than I can even begin to discuss here.
I found myself wondering if anorexia is the new nervous madness that features its own silent destructive revolution against the hidden power dynamics of our cultural norms, pointing toward the malaise and discontent of modern society, taking over from the hysteria so prevalent in the time of Freud? Have we not progressed beyond the solution of separation and institutionalisation for this position of obstinance? Somewhere in this madness seems an element of revolt against the stereotypes of our times, against the suppression of the feminine voice, the drive to masculinity, metaphors and realities of war, and of violence, a revolt against the shift that keeps us away from vulnerability, intimacy and peace. Perhaps all of recent human history, from before Aristotle and onward through the Christian denial of the feminine Divine, has been to suppress cooperation and compromise, nurturing and nourishment, a sacrifice of horticultural Earth time in the face of the ever more driven needs of self betterment and attainment watched over by clock time. Perhaps this is what distresses me physically, that I find my body inhabits a world that no longer makes sense to me. A world where our need for love and compassion and human connection is seen as a weakness to be fixed.
I realised too today is Earth Day, and here is my pledge of intention:
My intention is to no longer be fixed or rushed or made to feel less than or more than as I attend intimately to being patient and vulnerable and kind, accepting the intuitive wholeness of all beings and things, committing anew to allowing the soft animal of this body to love what it loves.
As I finished writing these thoughts, scrawling them frantically onto a piece of paper as they tumbled out of me into my coffee, having left the post office to find a space to pause awhile, I found I was filled with self compassion for my own traumatic vulnerability, tender compassion for the suffering of this mother who was doing her utmost to help her child be safe and cared for as best she could, and deep compassion for the health care staff who are caring with the best means they have in very difficult situations. Most of all I felt a well of love and compassion for a young person, and many others like her, who perhaps finds herself lost in a maze of darkness and is struggling to find her way through to some sliver of light. As a family we too have faced this darkness and I remain forever grateful for the strength to choose the path of turning toward the difficult together and finding our way out of the maze into the light.
Wild Geese 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.