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The On Being Project

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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