When it's over I want to say: all of my life
I was a bride married to amazement
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over I don’t want to wonder
If I have made my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
From “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver
Recently, while making the 20 hour drive to Iowa, I was listening to David Whyte’s audio book, “The Poetry of Self-Compassion” in which he recounts a story from early in his working life. Whyte finds himself lost within the frenetic energy of an activist organization, feeling disconnected from himself and exhausted. While enjoying a glass of wine with his mentor, he is given this counsel: the antidote to fatigue is not rest, the antidote to fatigue is whole heartedness. I immediately connected that advice with the lines above from Mary Oliver’s When Death Comes.
There are so many challenges facing us all in the world today. Climate change, pollution, political polarity, income inequality, social injustice, just to name a few. Being confronted with these challenges often invokes a knee jerk perspective that I have only two choices, to fight like hell against all odds, or to turn away and just live as if those things don’t matter (because of where I live and who I am in my society the latter is an all-too-accessible choice). For many of us, life feels like being a ping pong ball, where we gather our resources and fight the good fight until we are overwhelmed, discouraged, and depleted; and then we bounce over to withdrawal and avoidance. Both sides of the ring leading to fatigue.
Oliver’s wish for herself, one that I find so inspiring for myself, to be married to amazement and committed to taking the world into my arms is a powerful calling. Yesterday I was walking along the West river with a friend, commiserating our mutual discouragement with recent world events when we simultaneously took in the view of surface of the river appearing as a moonscape, a phenomenon of periods of freezing and thawing that causes the ice to compress and surge upward; I imagine much as the way the world’s mountain ranges emerge from platonic flow. Several times in our walk we flowed into amazement and back to frustration, both forms of taking the world into our arms. For me, while there was a sense of incongruence between these two ways of being, it was clear to me that I need deep daily doses of amazement for what it does to my way of engaging the world.
I cannot count the times I’ve asked a friend or colleague, “how are you?”, and the response is, “tired”. There are many ways we can strive to pursue our passions, many ways to become fatigued. Passion, in the broadest sense, is a motivation that makes us feel that we cannot not do some activity or fulfill some role. Following one’s passion may be a noble pursuit, but that alone will not prevent fatigue. It is important that we are driven by something that is deeply meaningful, and it is critically important how we pursue that passion.
Wholeheartedness is such a great way to think about how I am taking the world into my arms. Reflecting on my state of being causes me to check-in and wonder, why am I embracing the world? Is it out of fear, a sense of obligation, anger? Can I position my self from a place of amazement, wonder, gratitude and compassion? Fear, anger and the inevitable resentment that comes from obligation are all energy expenditures. Those emotions certainly give us a sense of motivation and energy, but the energy the make available is limited and derives from our adrenal system, which meant to keep us alive in times of acute crisis. As I’ve written about previously, gratitude and compassion in particular are known sources of energy, they actually extend our ability to persist in our goals over the long run. Although I don’t know of any academic research demonstrating a similar effect of amazement and wonder, I certainly have years of personal experience that attest to the impact they have on me.
I feel that wholeheartedness implies an openness to all of the feelings reflected in my heart, so that includes grief, despair, anger, AND wonder, gratitude, love, etc. I just have to take care that I include big doses of the latter to balance out the former. In this way, I can bring together heartbreak and wholeheartedness to ward off fatigue and to maintain the pursuit of my passions, hopefully, for many years to come.