In Quiet Places, We Face the Questions That Can Make or Unmake Us

Tuesday, November 14, 2017 - 4:51 pm

In Quiet Places, We Face the Questions That Can Make or Unmake Us

When I first read David Whyte’s poem “Sometimes” in all its beautiful simplicity, I realized that it describes an experience I’ve had from time to time walking in the woods.

by David Whyte

if you move carefully
through the forest,

like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,

you come to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

that can make
or unmake
a life,

that have patiently
waited for you,

that have no right
to go away.

Sometimes, as I rest in nature’s beauty, all my urgent questions go away — a lovely experience, but one that provides only temporary relief.

At other times, as the poem says, I come to a place where my questions come back — questions about how I am living my life, questions I ignore at my peril.

I mean questions like these: Why do you stay “hooked” on concerns that would disappear in an instant if you knew you were going to die tomorrow? Knowing that you will “die tomorrow” — whether tomorrow is 24 hours or 20 years from now — why don’t you shake off those worries and embrace whatever brings new life to you and the people around you?

I don’t know what your questions are. But maybe as you read this poem — or get out into a quiet place where nature can do its work on you — you’ll be able to name and ponder one or two of those questions that, as the poet says, “can make or unmake a life.”

That’s what I’m doing even as I write this!

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. His book On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, and Getting Old will be published in June.

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  • Gabby

    Each day for me involves such a reflective interlude, one indoors and the next outdoors, of looking at how I am living my life and what adjustments I should make. It is my essential stabilizing time in a too busy life.
    In terms of your particular sample question, for me the answer would be different if I were going to die tomorrow than in twenty or forty years. I think as one approaches the true end of life, there are wrapping up things to do, to tie the last ends together and to pass things along to those who will continue to carry forward after we are gone.
    If, in contrast, a person likely has twenty or forty years to go, I think it would not yet be time to focus all ones energies on oneself and the people immediately around.
    I can well guess that you, Parker, at 78 continue to exhaust yourself on behalf of others and need to work on conserving yourself. I have the same temperament and urgency about service and know even as I write today that I need to learn to slow down before I run myself into the ground.
    But if people in their thirties and forties, for example, who have the talent and ample resources to put themselves into the fray on behalf of less privileged people instead choose to focus only on nurturing themselves and those close to them, we are sunk as a country.

  • Louis Schmier

    Gabby, Parker, you know, being what the neurosurgeon called a “walking 5% miracle” (survived unscathed a massive cerebral hemorrhage ten years ago), how am I living my life is a question I consciously ask myself each day. For me each day is “on the house,” and it would be the ultimate sin not to open and use that present to its richest presented to me by the present. Each day I bring an exciting and joyous “what’s gonna happen today” curiosity to me and those around me by beginning it with a random selection from my stack of upbeat and inspiring “word for today,” cards–and consciously being guided by and living that word throughout the day. Today that word is “respectful.” During the day I make sure that I keep alert, aware, attentive, and alive by doing something that is an imaginative and creative–and perhaps an impish–newness. Today, I am continuing to experiment with and design a “tropical garden” that will surround my koi pond down here in South Georgia. And, I end each day by quietly writing down and pondering three things–mundane or profound–for which I am grateful that day. Last night my three gratitudes were: (1) at 77 being in the pink of physical health so that I could do my 5 minute daily planking and power walk my every-other-morning seven 15 minute miles, (2) that morning coffeecup of delicious Tanzanian Peaberry, and (3) a loving snuggle with my wife of 51 years and counting while we sipped our evening “just to talk” glass of wine. For me, life is a matter of constant refueling and reinvigorating–and serving.

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