Reflections by Jerry Webber

Friday, June 22, 2018

The Journey of Unknowing (part 3): "The Journey" by Mary Oliver

The Journey
Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems: Volume One, Beacon Press)

It is possible to spend a life waiting for just the right circumstance to arise in order to live your "one wild and precious life" . . . waiting for the way to come clear, waiting for the obvious marker or the clear sign that illumines the path ahead of you.

And further, it is possible to know there is a path calling to you and even to search for that path, while at the same time making all kinds of contingency plans that will catch you if the path does not work out. These safety nets -- "a life of contingency," I heard someone once call it -- are constructed of all our fears . . . the fears that we will not be as successful in the path as we had hoped, or that we might be misunderstood if we take an alternative path, or that we'll be embarrassed before peers to be seen on this less-traveled road.

Yet, there is also a weariness to the life of contingency, a sense of exhaustion that comes from continually creating safety nets that can catch us when we fail. We grow weary of life, and even weary of our own efforts to control and manipulate our own lives according to self-made plans and dreams.

And then, a few times in every life there come moments when "you finally know what you have to do, and you begin" . . . against all odds, against your well-trained instincts, against the bad advice of your controlling mind, against the grain of your friends and family.

You begin. Finally. You set out, though you cannot see where the journey will take you, and you cannot see clearly the road you are traveling. You simply know that you must walk this way. You finally know what you have to do, led by your soul . . . and you begin, led by your feet.

The long waiting waiting waiting for this moment to arrive may itself be a kind of procrastination, frozen in place waiting for just the right recipe of ingredients to be mixed together, waiting for clarity about the way forward, waiting for an unobscured view of what the days ahead look like.

When I get frozen in this place, perhaps "knowing what I have to do," and yet without the courage to "begin," it sometimes takes a life-jolt, some unexpected event to push me where I have not been willing to go on my own . . . a separation or divorce, a betrayal, a difficult diagnosis, an unexpected loss . . . something that more or less presses my position or forces my hand. I find in those moments, then, the struggle is not so much to move onward to a new path, but rather to stay where I am -- it would take more energy to stay put than to embark on a different path.

The image is something like the baby bird who wants to stay in the comfort of the nest, yet finally must step out into the vast unknown.

In fact, the place of comfort and safety where we have made our nest may not be as comfortable and safe as we think. And to be "pushed out" of that place may actually mark the beginning of "life."

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons not to set out on a journey which is largely unknown to us. So many valid excuses can hold us in place, paralyzing us in shame . . . or keeping us locked in a small room of fear . . . or warning us about dangers of going where there is no security . . . or reminding us of the unknown obstacles that are not evident from where we currently stand.

In fact, the voices from within me "shouting their bad advice" may be louder than those coming from outside me.

For all the reasoned excuses for not taking this path, Mary Oliver writes, "But you didn't stop. You knew what you had to do."

This is the very nature of the spiritual journey, of the path which is not visible. Understanding and seeing are not necessary for this journey, or at least seeing in the sense of an outer seeing.

On this journey, we learn to see with the inner eye. We learn to notice the interior landscape more than the exterior landscape (because in the "cloud of unknowing," we cannot see the exterior landscape!). With increasingly sharp focus, we see what our own inner self looks like, what we have believed, what has shaped us, what we have trusted (and mistrusted), what ideas we have built life around, what we have clung to for life which could not possible give life.

The what's, where's, and how's of the outer journey simply become tools for the more interior work which is our life's work . . . unfolding to be the persons we were created to be.

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