You do not have to be good

Wild Geese

— Mary Oliver

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.

Wild Geese was one of my first introductions to Mary Oliver and remains one of my favourite poems to date. Different lines jump out at me at different points in my life, and recently these first lines caught my eye. (I share the poem in full at the end of this post)

You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

At some point, I started noticing this in myself, in the people around me, this unmistakable desire to be good. I don’t know if this is a universal desire that crops up in people — I don’t know enough to say it’s universal. Somehow this wanting to be good reminds me of one of the basic premises presented in Gabor Mate’s latest book The Myth of Normal - the traumatic tension between two essential needs: attachment and authenticity.

Children often receive the message that certain parts of them are acceptable while others are not—a dichotomy that, if internalized, leads ineluctably to a split in one’s sense of self. The statement Good children don’t yell,” spoken with annoyance, carries an unintended but most effective threat: Angry children don’t get loved.” Being nice” (read: burying one’s anger) and working to be acceptable to the parent may become a child’s way of survival. Or a child may internalize the idea that I’m lovable only when I’m doing things well,” setting herself up for a life of perfectionism and rigid role identification, cut off from the vulnerable part of herself that needs to know there is room to fail—or even to just be unspectacularly ordinary—and still get the love she needs.

Although both needs are essential, there is a pecking order: in the first phase of life, attachment unfailingly tops the bill. So when the two come into conflict in a child’s life, the outcome is well-nigh predetermined. If the choice is between hiding my feelings, even from myself, and getting the basic care I need” and being myself and going without,” I’m going to pick that first option every single time. Thus our real selves are leveraged bit by bit in a tragic transaction where we secure our physical or emotional survival by relinquishing who we are and how we feel.

And so I wonder if this wanting to be good is some sort of a vestigial quality, left over from those days.

The desire to be good seems like a wave in the mind that deserves to be quietly observed and inquired into.

On the other hand, the reflex to hold others to some definition of good get greatly hinder relationships and cause one to stay stuck and lonely, perched precariously on a moral high horse. Some days I catch myself getting trapped in this state of contempt and yikes is it awful when that starts to change my relationship with others.

What makes someone good”? What makes a deed good”?

When cornered into a conversation to define and to justify goodness, it can be easy to lose touch with goodness even if we seem like we are arriving at a convincing articulation of the notion. Sometimes I guess what it takes is silence, and dropping into the heart of hearts — these grant me more clarity, and brings me closer.

March 14, 2024