Inches from my left shoulder, on the sill of the window here in my study, rests a poem that I typed out and posted there. I re-read the poem—“The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry—almost every day. In these days as ubiquitous calamities and worries about future possibilities have nearly paralyzed many of us, it’s a good place to start:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry (1968)
Each time I read it, I am grateful for the reminder that most creatures do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. And I realize I can be one of them, too. With that one line, Berry nudges me away from dithering myself into a depressive despair for our world. For a time, he notes, we can rest in the grace of the world and be free.
I do that.
But it is only “for a time”. For me, that time has two purposes. One is to give me relief from the creeping despair I feel about the course of humanity. The other is to refresh my energy to do something about it.
See, I think that we were created to participate in Creation—to nurture it, to evolve it, to improve it, to heal it from the damage we seem so doomed to inflict on it. And I understand that my despair, our despair, comes not from what we witness but from our feeling of helplessness. The ubiquity, the scale, the horror of humans’ inhumanity to other humans is beyond our ability to comprehend, to accept, or to fix with “thoughts and prayers”. We feel impotent and fearful.
And so we escape into realms of entertainment and diversion, escape into gated housing, escape into endless “ain’t it awful” nattering, escape into aging, escape into intellectual surrender—that woeful looking away in a supposedly learned realization that throughout history things have been this bad before and then they got better. We just have to wait it out.
Suicide isn’t always physical. We can end our lives just by doing nothing to them. By doing nothing with them. By choosing to remain impotent. By dismissing hope. By letting despair for the world continue to grow in us. By choosing to stay stuck.
Staying stuck. Or not.
That’s pretty much our only choice right now. I learned about “stuck” from my dear friend and former colleague Roger Gould, M.D., a singularly gifted psychiatrist/psychoanalyst. Roger developed a highly effective brief course of therapy that transforms the client’s understanding of their pain in a simple and radical way:
You think the cause of your pain is your cheating spouse, or your nasty boss, or your dead-end job.
But the real cause of your pain is your failure to do anything about it. You are stuck. That is what hurts. We hate being stuck, feeling impotent.
And you are stuck because the things you might have done—confront the spouse, stand up to the boss, move to a new job—are all too scary to contemplate. Probably you are imagining a catastrophe you could not survive. And so you have chosen to stay stuck, and angry, and stressed, and depressed.
But you may be wrong about what you imagine. So, let’s take a detailed, realistic look at why taking such an action seems so scary for you, and what might actually happen if you really did it.
We developed psychotherapy clinics to utilize this process. They helped thousands of clients gain fresh perspective on taking action, clambering out of these everyday quicksand pits onto solid ground where they found traction toward new vitality and possibilities. Catastrophes were exceptionally rare and always survivable.
I’m remembering Wendell Berry and Roger Gould today because I need to get back into action myself. Stupefied and stymied in recent months by incomprehensible mindsets and massacres abroad in the land, I have thought, done, and written nothing. I have lain too long in that place beside the pond where the wood drake rests in his beauty, where for a time I myself have rested in the grace of the world. The escape has been useful and refreshing. But lingering too long transforms resting places into quicksand pits, for suicide by staying stuck.
Time to buckle up and get back into the game...