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We Deserve the Compassion We Give

Here’s another much-loved Mary Oliver poem. When I first read it, years ago, I had trouble with it. It seemed to advocate the kind of self-centered life that’s one of the core pathologies of modern culture.

But life experience — hard experience — has led me to see the wisdom here. None of us can “mend” another person’s life, no matter how much the other may need it, no matter how much we may want to do it.

Mending is inner work that everyone must do for him or herself. When we fail to embrace that truth the result is heartbreak for all concerned.

What we can do is walk alongside the people we care about, offering simple companionship and compassion. And if we want to do that, we must save the only life we can save, our own.

Only when I’m in possession of my own heart can I be present for another in a healing, encouraging, empowering way. Then I have a gift to offer, the best gift I possess — the gift of a self that is whole, that stands in the world on its own two feet.

As I wrote in Let Your Life Speak — in a chapter on my experience with depression, “anything one can do on behalf of true self is done ultimately in the service of others.”

“The Journey”
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.

(Excerpted from Dream Work. Read the full poem here.)

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