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 despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and 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.
To me, this poem isn’t about license to act however we want, or giving up on morality. For me, this poem is an antidote to scrupulosity, that is, the tendency to try to do everything just exactly perfectly, or the best we can attempt to be perfect. For many of us, we’ve been raised in an atmosphere that shapes growing lives more by guilt rather than love and joy. This poem reminds me to relax, to look around me at the beauty and joy that is always here, and to know that I belong. Just by being alive, here and now, I belong.
Also, for a long time I was smack dab in the middle of despair and grief. This poem reminds me of the Buddhist story of a young mother whose baby son had just died. She was in such grief that she would not allow anyone to take the dead child from her arms, and she went to the Buddha to ask him to bring her son back to life. The Buddha took the baby in his arms and told the woman to go to every household she could, in order to find a family that had not been touched by death and grief. He said that when she got back, if she had found such a family, he would then talk with her about bringing the baby back to life. So she went from house to house, looking for a family where there had been no death, no grief. She listened to the people’s stories, and was moved to compassion and understanding. After many days she returned to the Buddha. In tears of grief and compassion she told him that there were no families without death and grief, and she was able to accept the Buddha’s response that death and change is in the nature of things. She was able to let her son go —- and she now had many kindred spirits to support her in her grief. To me, the story reminds me that I, too, have a place in the family of things. I, and you, too, belong.