Thursday November 3, 2005
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.
If I stopped
If I stopped and thought, maybe
can’t be saved,
Mary Oliver: The Moths
I recognise myself in Mary Oliver’s poem: so full of energy, always running around, terrified of stopping, in fear of the unbearable pain of stopping; as if the world might be transformed by all of this running; and succumbing to despair when it doesn’t seem to work.
It is a relief to remember that the belief we can fix the world is a delusion. The world is beyond fixing: suffering is woven into its very fabric. We are born with bodies that are vulnerable to harm, with hearts that are fragile and easily wounded, with limited capacities and with only short spans of life. How could we even begin to fix the world?
Nevertheless we long for the good, we ache for it. And as the chaos continues to rage about us, sometimes it seems that the more we do to make things better, the more we feel ourselves betrayed by the world, isolated, cut off. We do our best, but the world do not improve. We feel the slow, drip-by-drip accretion of layers of cynicism and despair. We wonder if it is worth making any effort at all.
It is a question of realising more fully the reality of the first noble truth – that the world is unsatisfactory and that the dream of perfection is our own invention. The world, when it comes down to it, is neither perfect nor imperfect, it is simply the world. We add ideas of perfection or imperfection to the world. And we pull away from the reality of the world, we resist the world as it is, in favour a dream of how things should be.
It can be easier to run in pursuit of the impossible dream of perfection than to stop. But – as I discovered again on retreat – stopping has a salutary effect. Only after stopping is it possible to look and see that, beyond all of our ideas of perfection and imperfection, are the simple facts, both sufferings and joys, just as they are. Not running and raging and feeling despair encroach upon the territories of the heart, but patiently attending to these sorrows and joys, waking from the dreams of the perfect world to come and from dreams of the imperfection of this world of the present, there is a kind of liberation, a freedom.
What is this freedom? It is a freedom to respond to sufferings without feeling obliged to fix the world, without becoming overwhelmed. It is the freedom to recognise that the world is not only suffering, that there are many joys as well, and that these are real joys, not invalidated by the inevitable presence of suffering in the world.
There’s a nice line in the Talmud. “The day is short; the task is great… You are not called upon to complete the work, yet neither are you free to evade it.” (Pirke Avoth 2:21)
Mary Oliver. New and Selected Poems. Boston: Beacon Press 1992. p. 132
(Photo: Zach Carter)
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