How Knowing that We Are Animals Helps Us Feel Less Lonely

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.

© Mary Oliver.

This poem is about how one can feel less lonely as an individual on the planet.  Mary Oliver is writing about ego and about the fact that it is not as hard as we think to let go of our egos.  All one has to do is “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

The philosopher Socrates, as transcribed by Plato, claimed not to be a thinker, or one who produces thoughts.  He stated that he was merely a midwife of ideas, bringing them into this world.  To him, the thoughts that he had – and his were quite refined – were not even really his.  He was not even the mother of the ideas, but just the one who helped the mother, whoever she may be, let the ideas out.

One could interpret this to mean that he saw himself as the midwife to other people’s thoughts, because, in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates was the devil’s advocate, interlocutor, and instigator of other people’s thoughts.  However, it is also possible to interpret this utterance as referring to Socrates’ own thoughts as well.  He, the thinker of his thoughts, was not even the mother of his own ideas.

By calling himself the midwife, Socrates put himself to the side of the thinking process, and the end of this maneuver was not humility before other people.  He was not hiding or denigrating his brilliance from other people.  His purpose was to illuminate a new way of looking at our thoughts; to introduce a detachment from the thinking process in order to free us from the constraints of our egos.

The effect of Socrates’ analogy today is to remind us that we are not alone with our thoughts in a world of others who cannot or will not share our ideas.  We are part of a process that is larger than the individual, which goes beyond ourselves.  Like the great philosopher Socrates, we let our minds bring forth ideas like a midwife assists the birthing of children, and like the subject of Mary Oliver’s poem, Geese, our bodies love what they do apart from our direction, like animals acting on mysterious motives.

With this conception of our bodies – of desire, fear, hunger, and even love – we can have compassion for ourselves, for our emotions, as we would for a soft, wayward animal.  When we think of ourselves as midwives of ideas, we can separate from the fear of being wrong, and from the need to convince others that we are right.  Reminding ourselves that our bodies, our emotions, are animals, soft and vulnerable, helps us to have compassion for our hurt feelings, our lonely feelings, and the feelings that we cannot control.  It reminds us to give ourselves and our feelings the protection that we need.

When we detach in this way, we can not only learn to care for ourselves, and to think freely and without fear; we are reminded that we are both less critically important and greater than we had ever thought.  We are not alone, but, “in a family of things.”  Yet our thoughts and our feelings come from something other than our own will, the thing we think of as “I,” our egos.  They happen to us, or through us, as the birthing of a child; as does love.   These things that we had always thought of as the qualities that define us, that make us who we are as solitary individuals in the world, are just as much parts of that world as they are of us.  Every time we think or feel, we are performing an act that connects us with the totality of existence.  Our thoughts and feelings give us a place in “the family of things,” just as a fox has a place in a food chain, and a plant is dependent on weather, other plants, and invisible microbes for its existence.

When we remember to think of ourselves as animals, we can learn to feel safer in our places in the world, and to have compassion for ourselves, which are just as much ours as they are like soft animals, which do not come from us, and do not answer to us.

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