“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
~ Mary Oliver, The Summer Day
It is the sacred task of poets, songwriters, and artists of all stripes to awaken us to our own magnificence. They plumb our depths and announce the ugly impotence of our fear. They celebrate our breathtaking bravery in the face of certain annihilation. They illuminate the beauty of the world with light drawn from the funeral pyre of our grieving. They shadow us as we carry out our appointed tasks and pop up suddenly through the cracks of our inattention. They inspire us on the climb and balm our wounds. Artists use images normally consigned to dreams and bathe the waking world with their strangeness, eliciting melancholy, memory, hope, breathless longing, and wild aspiration. Were it not for the lifting power of art we would bog down in the minutiae of our pedestrian duties, little more than cogs in the machines we have made. Art saves. Art awakens the grandeur of our significance. Art gives us a reason to go on.
And it does it by asking all the right questions.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Not everything is possible. We don’t have forever. Most of the elements of life are handed to us. We didn’t ask for most of this. We did not choose our race, ethnicity, or national origin. We did not choose our parents or brothers and sisters. We did not choose the century we were born in. We did not choose our gender or sexual orientation. We did not choose the shape or height of our bodies, nor our hair and eye color. We did not choose the economic class of our family of origin. We did not choose the city, state, neighborhood, or house we grew up in. We did not choose the other kids in our neighborhood and in our classrooms, the kids that would become the change agents in our lives, the kids that would spark our interest in music, or books, or baseball, or drugs, or surfing, or camping, or crime. We did not choose our genetic proclivities for introversion or extroversion or a hundred other traits. All of these choices were made for us. But within this rich tapestry of context we still had free will and an infinite array of options before us. We don’t control the weather, other people, or the past. But we’re radically free to choose our thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes. And now that many of us are all grown up, with fewer years ahead than behind us, we see as clear as glass that our own choices had a bigger impact on our life than all of the given conditions in which that freedom played out.
The bracing and inspiring heroism of the human experience is the capacity to wrest freedom from the fate we are handed. To wallow in the tired and false dilemma – is life meaningless or meaningful? – is to miss the point entirely. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. It is we who impose meaning on the phenomenal realm by the heft of our choices. Like sea mist rising from a jagged shoreline, meaning arises from the vigor of our engagement with the travails of our lives.
In another poem Mary Oliver asks a different question: “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” It is an accusation. It is a question meant to catch us unaware, and nearly shame us into real self-examination. It’s pretty in your face. Artists are like that.
The good news is that there’s plenty of inspiration lying at our feet, at our fingertips, within earshot, and hidden in plain sight. The more we struggle with real questions, the clearer it becomes. The jewel of the world is polished by our suffering, burnished by our longing, and laid bare by our awkward flailing. All around us are clues to the infinite value of the nameless mystery. When we see with eyes made new by an open heart we see a world worthy of love. Confusion gives way to clarity. Woundedness gives way to healing. Paralysis and ennui give way to fluid fascination. We begin moving in the direction in which we are called, not sure of every step, but filled with an unearned conviction that all of this suddenly matters, and much more than we ever thought before. In our sleep everything was blanketed with the fog of unconsciousness. But as we awaken, the whole world awakens with us.
Our boredom, our restlessness, our dissatisfaction – these are a call to action. They impel us to take risks we previously and studiously avoided. I don’t know what we were afraid of, or what we were protecting, but our suffering drives us onward. We don’t fully know the dangers that lay ahead, but they can’t be any worse than this sadness, this frustration, and this fear that we’re wasting our lives. Eventually the conviction arises that what lies ahead is worth the risk. Soon we viscerally and completely understand the words of Joseph Campbell when he wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” We learn to take risks and leap where prudence counsels us to wait and hold back. The darkness of the unknown, the fear of failure, and the threat of annihilation are no match for the joy that draws us forth. “Find the place inside you where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain,” wrote Campbell. And he’s right. Our joy is always brighter, stronger, surer, and more real than any so-called obstacle. Joy trumps fear and pain every time.
Looking back we see that our blunders and weakest moments were signposts that showed us how to navigate the path ahead. As Campbell wrote, “Where you stumble, there lie your treasures.” Without our failures we would have utterly lost our way.
Too many times we got it wrong. We misread our mistakes. We misread our fears. We ran from both ashamed, leaving unredeemed treasures scattered on the road behind us. It’s time to get it right. It’s time to let our loving show us the way toward our own best life. It’s time to stop crawling along on our bellies, apologizing for being alive, worrying about what other people will think. Let them go. They have their own roads, their own standards, their own struggles. Life is wild and precious, as Mary Oliver wrote, and a treasure too valuable to squander on fear and misgivings. There is a meadow or a field or a forest or a seashore right outside your door – go there and listen. Really listen. Sit on the ground and wait. Let the flight of birds and the paths of clouds point the way. Let the wind through the trees be a song of your unfolding. And in the stillness hear your own heart asking you to finally, firmly, and lovingly claim your place in the heartbreaking beauty of the world.