You do not have to be good

In memory of poet Mary Oliver, who died one year ago today, I offer a reflection I wrote in 2016 on her poem, “Wild Geese.” 

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I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can.

“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.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.

Permission

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.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.

Perspective

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.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.

Invitation

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.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.


An Active Rest

Under the winter sun and beneath the cold, hardened ground, spring is already hard at work, getting ready to go, ready to grow.

It is our responsibility to stay present to the lessons and possibilities of the current season while also preparing for the one that is to come.

“Winter” has two more months to make its case, one that reminds us to come back to ourselves, to conserve and to evaluate. But this is – this must be – an active rest, not a stagnant one.

The roots of the trees are busily storing water and nutrients for what’s to come. If not, there is no spring.


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Becoming a Person

I don’t want to start a philosophical or theological debate about this so let me offer a caveat at the outset: when I distinguish between a human being and a person I am distinguishing between the common accident of birth all Homo sapiens share and how some turn that accident into an intentional, conscious life. In my experience there is a vast difference between the two.

In my case, I don’t think that I became a person until I was 35 years old, because up until that age, even though I had done so many wonderful, beautiful things and faced my own deeply challenging circumstances, I had not honestly confronted my lack of consciousness about my self…my person.

You could argue that what I’m getting at here is more a question of maturity than personhood but I don’t find that word satisfying since it implies that if you live long enough you’ll get to self-awareness; again, the accident argument.

To become a person then, requires a conscious choice to venture out and away from the self in order to fully and wholly return to it. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, The Journey, which begins:

“One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
Though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –“

That bad advice?

“Don’t do it! Don’t go! Stay here in the pleasantly familiar, entirely predictable pattern of a semi-conscious life. Don’t realize how you have allowed your circumstances to rob you of your freedom to choose how you will live.”

And (even more desperately now),

“Don’t remind me of my own fear, my own shame, my own self-satisfied ‘stuckness’ by confronting your own!”

To become a person is to leave behind the relationships that hold you down – including, and perhaps especially the one with yourself – and take on the ones that build you up.

What is it, though, that gets you to the place where “you knew what you had to do, and began”?

For some, it’s tragedy; surviving an illness or a disaster, or grieving someone who did not.

For some, it’s the advent of anger that persists in unexpected, irrational ways. This can emerge in a new marriage or at the arrival of children, deep tears in the fabric of the familiar.

For others, it’s meeting a person of considerable influence who will not be bound by our rules of engagement, who hits us right between the eyes with the feedback we always knew was true but could never willingly hear.

And for others, it’s the revelation of childhood trauma, the awareness that their vulnerability was victimized by someone who knew better but still succumbed to their worst inclinations.

Whatever the source, our inner dynamics always find a way to emerge and provide us with a choice: will I remain constructed in this way (human) or will I set out to reconstruct myself into a person, by stepping into “…a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones.” (again, The Journey.)

There is no path to becoming a person that is not littered with risk, real or imagined, which is why many people choose not to walk towards transformation.

Once again, I am neither a philosopher nor a theologian. Rather, I am a student of the human experience, as practiced through executive coaching and organizational consulting. My domain of interest and influence is organizational life and how it can be made richer, more positive and more productive for every human, indeed, for every person who participates in it.

This is, then, a request to all leaders to take the steps necessary to become a person. Until you do, your human leadership is a roadblock to the positive, productive richness that your people both deserve and crave. For yourself, for them, please walk out into that wild night, leaving the voices behind and “save the only life you can save.”

Here’s the poem in full:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

– Mary Oliver


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There’s Room at the Table

RULE13 Learning

In 1936 Dale Carnegie proposed that there are “six ways to get people to like you.”

Here’s his list:

  1. Be genuinely interested in other people.
  2. Smile.
  3. Remember people’s names.
  4. Be a good listener.
  5. Talk in terms of other’s interests.
  6. Make people feel important and do it sincerely.

– from How to Win Friends and Influence People

Not on the list?

  1. Share your accomplishments.
  2. Demonstrate your worthiness.
  3. Take yourself seriously.
  4. Describe your competence in detail.
  5. Act self-important.
  6. Tell an anecdote that makes you sound interesting.

Is this all self-evident? Is it obvious that humility and curiosity are the benchmarks of likability and therefore the cornerstones of connection? Most people would say so but I still see behaviors – and even notice impulses in myself – that contradict that sentiment.

The need to prove our worthiness seems to me the single greatest impediment to the establishment of mutually generative relationships. The…

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Poem for a Sunday Morning

WEAN YOURSELF

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say, “The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.”

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.

Listen to the answer.

There is no “other world.”
I only know what I’ve experienced.
You must be hallucinating.”

― Rumi, The Essential Rumi


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The Lightest Touch

The Lightest Touch
{David Whyte}

Good poetry begins with
the lightest touch,
a breeze arriving from nowhere,
a whispered healing arrival,
a word in your ear,
a settling into things,
then like a hand in the dark
it arrests your whole body,
steeling you for revelation.

In the silence that follows
a great line
you can feel Lazarus
deep inside
even the laziest, most deathly afraid
part of you,
lift up his hands and walk toward the light.

I have never felt stronger about my belief that the role of leaders is to create environments in which the fullest, messiest and most productive qualities of the human experience can be safely expressed and harnessed for the good of the organization. To do so takes courage and vulnerability and fortitude and I have dedicated my professional efforts to fulfilling that vision.

While my sense of purpose remains clear, the quality of my intensity in bringing it to fruition is changing. That intensity no longer takes the form of impassioned, even heroic efforts at conversion (“If only they would just listen to me, they would understand!!”).

I am discovering, as all great influencers (and poets) know, and perhaps as a byproduct of age, maturity and experience, that I can trust the power of a nudge, a word, a moment, a pause to bring my vision to life. I can trust, most of all, that consistency, far more than unbridled passion – a daily regular presence, a living each day as if it that future state is already here – is how the entrance to the cave is finally freed of its stone.


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The Consolation of Completion (Redux)

Some further thoughts on yesterday’s post, The Consolation of Completion:

Many of our workplaces create an ethos of task completion and goal achievement at any cost. This habituation to the measurable allows us to feel good about ourselves at the end of the day but it fails to take into account the fact that most of what is happening in any given workplace on any given day is abstract, dynamic and immeasurable.

That is to say, human beings at work – or in any setting – are not easily quantified by the checking of boxes.

Leaders need not be paralyzed by this reality, though many are. Nor should they ignore the necessity of task completion and turn themselves into full-time coaches and counselors. That is neither a realistic nor a sustainable approach.

A thoughtful awareness – an acknowledgement, a making room for – of the messiness of the human condition at work, not to solve or fix it, but simply to be someone with the capacity to accept its presence, leads to another ethos entirely.

This is an ethos of integration, one in which the efficiency of doing and the messiness of being coexist because both are recognized as vital to the elevation of the human experience at work.


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The Consolation of Completion

I am a master of getting things done. Sometimes, it’s even stuff that has to do with my  growth, learning and development as a human being.

I am a master of knocking out the dishes, wiping the counters clean, spinning over to the couch to fold the laundry. I am a master of getting that laundry distributed and put away. I am a master at mowing, edging and weed pulling. I am a master at unpacking my bag after a trip, dirty clothes in the basket, clean clothes hung up or put away.

I am a master at doing all of the things that have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Checking those things off my list feels fantastic. It fills me with feelings of pride and the clear knowledge of having made a contribution to my household and family.

Every single one of those things is important. And every single one of those things is a convenient hiding place from the real work of becoming the better version of myself that I aspire to be.

That work cannot be charted on a task list but only on the pages of a much bigger book, messy scribbles writing a messy story, one that keeps inviting me back to make a bigger mess and to trust that the mess, the incompleteness is, in fact, the evidence of becoming.

Everything else is consolation.


fish eye photography of man holding gray cup

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Life is always there

Sometimes it is small and just barely there. Sometimes it grows out of nothing into something. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the path. Sometimes we notice it and sometimes we don’t.

Life is always there, it is always happening. It is among the greatest disciplines we can practice, that of expecting to encounter life at every turn and to be fully available to it when we do.

This is the life that is always emerging in and from yourself. This is the life that is emerging in and from everyone you meet. This is the life that is actually teeming, breathing, vibrating around you right now.

To be there for it is to honor it. To notice can mean everything.


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Photo credit: Davis Berry – Cammasia Preserve, Oregon