Mary Oliver’s Gift to Men


In memoriam – Mary Oliver – 1935-2019

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.

I can still remember the wave of joy and relief I felt when I first read these lines by US poet Mary Oliver – the sense that it might be possible to call a truce in the inner war that so many of us have accepted as ordinary life.

Judging by the outpouring of respect and love and favourite quotes that followed her death yesterday, she helped many millions towards a kinder, larger vision of “this one wild and beautiful life”.

It was a vision that came from her own difficult journey. Starting in a dysfunctional family paired with the binary morality of Sunday School, she increasingly escaped to the woods, steeping herself in the inclusivity of nature. Later she would own that the soft animal of her own body loved women, whatever the established church might say about LGBTQ identity.

Can Wild be Safe?

But what might men in particular make of this vision? I’ve been thinking about this recently, not least in the light of #metoo and male abuse of power. Can the male body really be trusted to “love what it loves” in the sense that Oliver’s poem seems to offer?

There was a time when I would have scorned that notion, preferring to crawl “a hundred miles through the desert repenting” – and believing as a good Christian boy that we are fundamentally steeped in original sin, requiring us to suppress anything remotely animal in our natures.

In recent years, however, I’ve discovered that the more I embrace my wild, animal nature –through dance, intimacy and trusting the wisdom of dreams and the subconscious – the more alive and unconflicted I feel; the more aligned to a wholesome sense of purpose in the world. Wildness has liberated me in an integrated way that religion ultimately couldn’t.

Interestingly, I notice that my partner and other women friends seem reassured when I’m able to stand in that self-acceptance and life energy, loving what I love without self-recrimination. While not exactly “safe”, the animal self that Oliver loves seems paradoxically to be more trustworthy than the civilised and restrained persona that society and religion requires us to hide behind.

Understanding Shadow

How can this be? Clearly systemic and gendered abuse persists in the world, much of it perpetrated by men. But perhaps it’s less masculinity than its sublimated shadow that causes the problem – needy and entitled, spilling out sideways, unacknowledged.

“Self-discipline is not self-suppression,” says the writer David Deida. “Suppression is when you resist and fight against your desires, keeping them as buried and unexpressed as possible. Self-discipline is when your highest desires rule your lesser desires, not through resistance, but through loving action grounded in understanding and compassion.”

In my experience, the truly magnificent men in my life – and I know several as friends or clients – are clear, strong and vulnerable all at once, knowing both their light and their shadow, willing to work on both.

We do this work – as both men and women – by finding and remembering our mission and higher calling in life, and befriending even the seemingly troublesome parts of us through radical inclusion, believing they will reveal their gifts and integrate to strengthen our life force.

Asking for Help

And in my experience – in coaching, group work, rites of passage and deep friendship – that happens most powerfully when we make ourselves vulnerable to other men and women, asking for the help we need, owning our emotions and allowing our urges to arise and pass like weather.

As Oliver’s wonderful poem Wild Geese continues:

Tell me about your 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.

Listen to a rare interview with Mary Oliver on the wonderful On Being.


Posted on: 18 Jan 2019 in Menswork, Psychology, Spirituality, The writing life
Tagged , , ,


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