Thursday, September 3, 2009
To Be Good
by Clare Brauer-Rieke
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.
-- Mary Oliver, "Wild Geese"
I heard this poem for the first time two weeks ago. Since then, it has filled my head, resonated in my mind-space, and its echoes have not yet quieted. Mostly, I think it is the first line: "You do not have to be good." In the Christian tradition, in both familial and societal life, the message I know is, "Be good. In fact, be better than good-- be like Jesus, who was perfect." Oh well, then! Certainly, let me get right on that.
The pressure is immense. My generation especially feels the weight of climate change, environmental degradation, the loss of entire species of animals, the impact of all these things on the global poor. We do not just feel the pressure to be good. We feel the pressure of all choices made before we were making choices, of compounding those choices with our own, struggling to keep all the balls in the air when we aren't even sure we know how to juggle yet. Be good? No. Be better than good -- be perfect. And so it becomes the competition of the most righteous, the greenest, the most environmentally-conscious, the least hypocritical.
With this frame of mind, go back and read Oliver's poem again. "You do not have to be good." What permission this is. Though whispered like a benediction, it rings in my ears. And while it is this first line that jars me, captures my attention, what follows is the heart of Oliver's message: "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. . . . 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."
How did "being good" come to be our focus? "Being good" rings false-- if we are born into a context of brokenness and cannot reconcile ourselves, "being good" is behavior only. The weight I feel, what feels like nothing less than the preservation of the earth's ability to support life, will bury me if my only defense is a desperate struggle to be good, better than good, perfect. If I am honest with myself and with you, I can never be any of those things. Instead, what if I step outside of the rat race for a moment? What if I let the soft animal of my body have voice again, love what it loves; what if I hear the world's invitation to me, to my imagination, and recognize my place in the family of things? Maybe if I can remember who I am-- in a deeper way than my name, my address, my occupation-- an understanding of what I can do will begin to fall into place.
I would like to set Oliver's challenge before us to be taken seriously and practically. You don't have to be good. In fact, just stop being good for a minute. Go somewhere where the soft animal of your body has voice again, and listen. What does it love? What do you love? Where is your place in the family of things? Revel in it for awhile, let things slip back into focus, even if briefly. See if it clicks. Then, with open eyes and an open heart, maybe you will have new strength, new insight. And, imperfect as you are, maybe you will do good.
Meanwhile the world goes on.