“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert,
You only have to let the soft animal of your
Love what it loves.”—Mary Oliver, Wild Geese
“You do not have to be good.” I was driving in an agency car, floating past Greeley’s barren, tractor-laden fields on my way back from counseling a community based client when I first heard this line from Oliver’s poem read aloud to me on a poetry CD given to me by one of my old supervisors. Dusk was settling in over the vast countryside, and the smell of manure leaked in through the windows of the beat up Toyota. I was an hour away from Denver, alone. The memory of that moment, when I felt so lit up and alive, is palpable to me right now, years later.
Everything else around me became quiet. The line, “you do not have to be good” settled in to my body and cradled me, confused me, held me. Never has something struck me as so radical and counterintuitive. So delicious, attractive, brilliant, and right. Hearing it made my heart flutter and drop at the same time. My body understood the sentiment, but my mind had no idea what to think, and I loved it.
For me, being ‘good’ often feels like my life mission. I’m here to make a difference in the world (if I can), and to be a good sister, a good renter, a good runner, a good friend, blah blah blah, etc. Letting all of that go seemed like it would be the most freeing thing I could ever do. Even reading the laundry list of what I’m supposed to be right now as I write it bores me and stresses me out, and I want to get away.
But giving up on being good also seemed like it would mean…dying. Not trying. Abandoning my responsibilities to everyone I love.
What the **** was Mary Oliver talking about? And why did I love it so much? I was thrown into an inner crisis by a poem. Written by an older, New England, nature-loving literature professor.
The gray fields around me were suddenly on fire, and I was driving into the heart of the flames.
And then I heard: “You only have to let the soft body of your body love what it loves.” Well, my God. This was almost lascivious. I am an animal with a soft body? AND I don’t have to be good? What kind of heathen was this Mary Oliver?
Giving ourselves compassion is one of the hardest things we do as human beings. The thing I see the most—in my clients, in my friends, and in myself—is a struggle with beating ourselves up for not being good enough, for not doing enough.
“I’m wasting my life.”
“I’m probably sick because I push myself too hard.”
“I’m not reading, being creative, or helping the world enough.”
“I’m unhappy because I’m screwed up and I push everyone away.”
We all have these thoughts. We internalize negative messages that we receive from our incredibly harsh society, our parents, our partners, colleagues and our friends. Our minds become our biggest critics, and we push ourselves until we’re exhausted and burnt out. We become wound up with anxiety, and then feel sore in our bodies. We can’t focus, or we just feel sad, numb or disconnected. All because we need to be ‘good.’
What would it mean to not have to be good? What would it mean to embrace that we’re all just animals with soft bodies, stumbling around trying to connect with one another?
I let the poem sink in as I finished my drive back into the city. The harsh, exciting signs of civilization began popping up around me. The black buildings with light bursting through their tiny windows loomed above the huge freeway. Bilboards for sugary McDonald’s coffee and soulless furniture warehouses invited me back into a city that was bustling with life, but often felt lifeless.
As I entered this different kind of wasteland, I imagined myself as an animal with a soft, loving body. Who was this animal? What would it be drawn to? Would it be ‘wrong’ or bad just for existing?
It didn’t ask to be here. After all, It’s an animal. There’s so much it can’t help or control. There’s so much it didn’t sign on for.
This was a new way of relating to myself that had never occurred to me before. Every ‘awful’ thing I imagined that I would want or do wasn’t awful at all. I realized that the animal of my body wanted all the same things that every other animal around me wanted—connection, love, survival, acceptance, peace, fun. What was wrong with that? Why couldn’t I move towards what I loved and love it whole-heartedly? The wild world was calling to me and I didn’t want to block it anymore. I wanted to open to it.
When I gave myself permission not to be good, I strangely felt more compassion for every other being around me, walking on its knees, repenting. I knew it wasn’t in any animal’s intrinsic nature to be cruel. When we feel loved–especially by ourselves–we operate from a place of love with those around us.
Humanity seemed, suddenly, as tender and soft as the dusk that had guided me home. And the buildings were soaring like geese, inviting me into the often harsh, often exciting dance of life.
Everything that looked frightening—every sign that the world was going on around me—was simply offering itself to my imagination, announcing my place in the family of things. And all I had to do was go love it.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach is designed to foster a sense of strength, understanding, and joy. Her expertise focuses on helping individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.