Have you ever wondered why certain kinds of exhaustion are so persistent? Especially the kind laced with burnout and even a bit of despair. This type of weariness can be highly resistant to our conventional cures and strategies. In just a moment, I’ll show how poetry is the perfect tool for this challenge. But first, let’s start with this simple fact.
The antidote for exhaustion is often not rest, but rather it is wholeheartedness…
Sure, we may need to slow down and rest, but what we may need even more, is to organize our lives around actions and goals that follow and feed, not deplete and deprive, our heart. Who has not suffered the pain of having to do some job or project, for which we could muster only “half-hearted” effort? And these circumstances and symptoms can sneak up on us, without our actually realizing their true source.
So should we follow the sage advice of Joseph Campbell, who implored us to “follow our bliss” in life? Yes! And no! Yes, we need to follow our bliss in a wholehearted way, which means we need to be courageous. Remember, the word courageous comes from the Latin “cor” meaning heart. So courage is to know and follow our heart, or “bliss” as Campbell puts it.
What about the “no” part? Here I mean “no” to thinking that wholehearted, courageous living comes without cost. It does not. For any wholehearted effort is going to include not only the incredible fuel produced by passion and purpose, but also the fierce, difficult, and downright scary realities of operating that way as well.
But the wonderful, paradoxical truth is that the heart’s response to wholeness is deep healing. And yes, of course wholeness means everything must be included. Nothing can be left out.
OK, now for the radical power of poetry part…
Recently, a student from one of my classes at Dominican University wrote to ask me for a poem she might read at a dear relative’s memorial. A poem I’ve suggested many times for others facing the death of a loved one, is Mary Oliver’s poem, In Blackwater Woods. The last lines of the poem tell us to live an engaged, present, fully alive life with those we love and who love us, we must be able to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Of course, the full poem is stunning and I encourage you to read it. However, my point is made even in these few lines. Mary Oliver is speaking from her whole heart to our whole heart. She is saying what we already know and feel deeply, but that we at times forget. She’s saying that any person that is dear to us, and loved by us, must be held against our bones as if our very life depended upon it… and then when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.
It is within this fierce fire, that our hearts are more fully healed so that we need not mute either the joy of a person’s life or the deep grief we feel at their parting.
Or in another example, what about these few opening lines from Maya Stein’s poem called, instead of “thank you,” try “no thank you”
Take the thorny, inconvenient step. Create a mess outside your usual jurisdiction.
Stop leaning on the learned practices that have kept the seams of duty
tight as they are…
See where she’s going? Let the tiredness go. Let the bleakness go. Let the burnout and even the despair go. Let it go by welcoming the whole kit and caboodle of life. If we want the aliveness, joy, and ecstasy, we must welcome it all. And in this case, it’s not by playing it safe, not by saying thank you when we really mean no thank you!
Where do exhaustion, burnout, and even despair come from? No doubt, from many sources. Yes, it comes from pain and loss in all domains, including the personal, business, political, environmental, and social. One way to address these feelings is to immerse ourselves in poetry that shows us, and then helps us actually create the wholehearted way.
Well chosen poems can show us how to hold and transcend the challenges, conundrums and contradictions we all face and particularly face these days. Great poems can mentor and let us experience the essence of passionate, engaged, wholehearted living. They can demonstrate how all must be included. They can show us how to digest and integrate the most divergent things. And in this way, great poems can offer a wonderful, quirky, powerful, untraditional way of dealing with this strange, beautiful, mysterious life we’ve all been given.
PS: If you want to see this principle in action specifically regarding our current political and social scene, then join me at the Marin Jewish Community Center on September 10th 1: to 3:30 PM for A Micro Retreat For Our Citizen Souls. Call 415.444.8000 to register.