The Life You Save May Be Your Own

In his book, Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie recounts how he was talking to African-Americans theologian and civil rights leader, Howard Thurman, about what the world needed when Thurman interrupted him and said, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Thurman, who knew how much it had cost to do what made him come alive, would undoubtedly bristle at the ways his words have since been sentimentalized by American therapeutic individualism. Left to the self-help gurus, Thurman’s wakeup call becomes, “What the world needs is a better, happier me.”

A helpful corrective, perhaps, is to read Thurman’s advice in light of Frederick Buechner’s observation that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if serving the world’s deep hunger is the key to my salvation, however one might define that last word? Happy are they who know and abide at that meeting place. Some have yet to find it. Others have forgotten, lost the way, or wasted time on seductive distractions.

The pandemic and killings of 2020 have called collective attention to long neglected vulnerabilities, profound injustices, and vast inequities that have always been there, however much I may have ignored them or consigned them to convenient abstraction. I know I can’t singlehandedly heal such longstanding wounds (what monstrous pretension to imagine I have the necessary wisdom and power!) yet I can find or return to my small place in the collective effort, and in so doing, perhaps remember who I truly am.

You may have this figured out already. For the rest of us who, like the Prodigal Son, wake up on cold winter mornings wondering how far we’ve strayed from our true inheritance, some words of encouragement may be necessary. We won’t save the world, but we may find our place in it. Below are two poems by Mary Oliver on finding that place where one’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger intersect. If they strike a chord, go and do likewise.

The Journey

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.

Wild Geese

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 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.

From New and Selected Poems, Volumes 1 and 2, by Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 1992 and 2005.

Image: The Prodigal Son, by He Qi, 1995.

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