self portrait by David Whyte
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
This is one of my favorite poems. I read that Whyte wrote this after looking in the mirror one morning. What kind of a morning was that, I wonder?
I love the first lines, the way they set the tone. It doesn’t interest me if there is one God or many gods. It isn’t as important as I once thought it was, this matter of faith. It doesn’t end the discussion on what is important in life, nor is what determines a life lived well or with meaning. Rather, it is the answers to the questions that follow.
And what are my responses to the questions Whyte asks in this poem? I want to know if you belong or feel abandoned. This question pokes in tender areas. Much of my life I’ve not felt that sense of belonging. Even as a child in a large, loving home, there was a feeling of being on the outside looking in sometimes. There was the unanswered questions about my birth mother, that wondering, that feeling of being left. As an adult, quite often I’ve felt just on the outskirts of the group…not quite an outsider but not quite in the tribe, either.
There have been patches of wonderful friendships where I felt a part of the tribe and it was lovely. But there have been long lonely stretches where most of my connections were with co-workers and acquaintances…shallow relationships that often left me feeling more lonely than connected.
I’ve been on one of these stretches these last few years, since leaving the church. Yet, in some ways I feel a stronger sense of belonging than ever before. I have this deep soul connection with Tam that is amazing and wonderful and sacred. And my evolving friendship with my younger daughter is one of the rarest and most precious I’ve known. And on another level, I feel a stronger sense of belonging with the whole of the human race…a stronger awareness of the presence in people and the continuity of this presence in me, in them, in all things.
I love this line from another of Whyte’s poems (Sweet Darkness):
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Perhaps that is why I feel more a sense of belonging now, because I’ve been giving up all of these other worlds…
If you know despair or can see it in others. Have I finally come to the stage where I can face my despair, where I can feel it and become, if not comfortable with it at least not spin my wheels wildly trying to hide or run from it? I hope so. I think when someone reaches the point where they stop trying to outrun bad things, where they learn to ride the waves instead of being crushed by the surf,it shows. It shows on their faces, it shows in the way they treat those around them and it shows in their responses to the unpredictable mysteries of life. I would go so far as to say that until you’ve looked despair square in the face, you’re stalled. In important ways you’ve stopped growing.
I want to know if you are prepared to live in the world with its harsh need to change you. If you can look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand. This has been a hard lesson for me. I’ve lost myself so many times, had to start over, try to re-invent myself as the next incarnation of who everyone seemed to be shouting I should be. It has been a rough and tedious journey, this finding of myself among the rubble of all of those ruins. Picking through the scattered remnants of past selves or present urges or habitual thoughts, examining the finds, turning them over and searching for the answer to the question, “is this me? Is this how I truly feel, who I truly am?” Again and again. It feels like an archaeological dig, really. Looking for that resonance, that qualifier that echoes my true sense of self back to me. And then reaching deep inside for the strength and determination it sometimes takes to look back with firm eyes saying this is where I stand.
I want to know if you know how to melt into that fierce heat of living falling toward the center of your longing. Have I learned how to dive headfirst into the still waters of my own unique life? Has the desire for authenticity that has burned in me for nearing a decade brought me closer to living my truest life? Do I cherish this inner fire more than my safety, my comfort, my laziness? Are my days lit by this fierce heat of living?
I want to know if you are willing to live, day by day, with the consequence of love and the bitter unwanted passion of your sure defeat. What is the consequence of love if not our sure defeat? Isn’t loving like dying? Love asks us to offer ourselves up without protection. We have to risk rejection and pain and heartache. We have to be willing to be hurt to let down the barriers. To love one person wholly, completely and without reserve is a wonder. To love anyone at all, to give oneself in love in a million small ways throughout the day is a wonder. And maybe the sure defeat is also the ways I will fail in love. The ways I will disappoint myself with my selfishness or pettiness. The ways I will fail myself in the lack of love I show myself. The ways I will fail in staying true to myself. I will be defeated in all of these ways and finally, I will be defeated by death. Will my longing for living an authentic, rich life mean anything at all in the face of death? What does my striving to love amount to in the face of death? And am I willing to live with the knowledge of my death and still dive deep, still love with all I have, still give myself utterly to life?
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even the gods speak of God. In this fierce embrace of life in the face of death lies the purest experience of presence. It is beyond self and others, gain or loss, beyond hope or hopelessness. It is sacred.
Good questions. In the responses lie the answers to the questions about living a life that has meaning, I think.