The Discipline of Recognizing What’s True and Beautiful

Wednesday, March 8, 2017 - 5:00 am

The Discipline of Recognizing What’s True and Beautiful

This Mary Oliver poem carries a reminder I can use every day: look and listen all the time for whatever it is that will “kill me with delight,” that will “instruct me in joy and acclamation,” that will help me grow wise.

It takes no special talent to look around our world and point out things that are numbing, depressing, or death-dealing. But becoming keenly and consistently aware of what’s good, true, and beautiful demands a discipline: we must open our eyes, minds, and hearts, and keep them open.

As we open up, we begin to see beauty everywhere, not only in nature but in human nature. There’s a lot of bad news out there, but there’s a lot of good news as well. Pass the word and help keep hope alive!

by Mary Oliver

Every day
   I see or hear
         that more or less

kills me
   with delight,
      that leaves me
         like a needle

In the haystack
   of light.
      It is what I was born for—
         to look, to listen,

to lose myself
   inside this soft world—
      to instruct myself
         over and over

in joy,
   and acclamation.
      Nor am I talking
         about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
   the very extravagant—
      but of the ordinary,
         the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
   Oh, good scholar,
      I say to myself,
         how can you help

but grow wise
   with such teachings
      as these—
         the untrimmable light

of the world,
   the ocean’s shine,
      the prayers that are made
         out of grass?

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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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  • Peg

    Thank you, Parker. I needed to be reminded of this today – and every day. Blessings !

  • Gabby

    My reaction on first reading this was “Discipline?” And then I remembered that some of us are either temperamentally disposed or maybe genetically programmed to retain a childlike sense of wonder about things around us, while others mature or change out of it. It is something like, but not the same as, the finding in psychology that optimism or pessimism is an embedded personality trait rather than a choice.
    But scholarly research in psychology finds compelling evidence (see Martin Seligman, the “father of positive psychology”) that gratitude is not only a primary factor associated with personal satisfaction and emotional health but also can indeed be trained. And here we have the connection to the word “discipline.” If it is not ones natural inclination to see the good easily, it can indeed be learned and practiced and become a habit or disposition. Seligman and others have suggested, for example, maintaining a gratitude notebook, a record with an entry made religiously before going to bed of three things one noticed with gratitude during the day.
    His research (he is at either Chicago or Penn) shows the positive impact of this practice. It is not only a theory.

    • Gregory

      Yes. I heard Arthur Brooks speak on this couple years back. Gratitude. Conjuring up words of gratitude can actually change brain chemistry so it seems. That is fantastical! And if there is anything the human person needs to engage in daily it would Be gratitude.

      • AllieBaba2006

        Something that the Bible advocates…give thanks. It makes you a better person.

        • Gregory

          Indeed. And any religious faith worth its doctrine also encourages the embodiment of gratitude. If one finds themselves amongst one that does not I recommend fleeing immediately!

    • Kavita Mahendra

      Love your theory!

  • Susan

    I have to learn this lesson again and again–“It is what I was born for”–and so keep her poem near. Thank you for giving it to all of us again.

  • Kavita Mahendra

    This is so beautiful! I have read it several times and it brings me to a state of wonder at how words can be magical!

  • Louis Schmier

    This piece took me back twenty-five years. There I was, in the mid-point of my academic career, an accomplished researching and publishing scholar of some renown—until my “volcanic” epiphany in 1991. In that unexpected and unplanned sudden moment, I zoomed in on who I was at the moment and who I wanted to be in the moments to come. It was an inner upheaval of earthquake proportions going from a need to be important and to impress to doing important things, from wanting to look good to doing good works.

    My first priority shifted from lengthening my resume to developing my inner self. To my surprise, I discovered that deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction lay in those few moments I tore myself away from thinking about my scholarship, focused on a student in the classroom, and felt myself come alive. The classroom, I had to admit, was the place where I really felt a breathless purpose. That’s where I came to decide to lay my values and my identity. I had to admit that I wasn’t truly getting fulfillment from my books, articles, grants or conference papers. I always felt and knew, though I did not admit it until that moment, that I was being driven to please and cater to others.

    It was when my search for meaning, for my own reality, abruptly took me out from archive and into the classroom, when I did a “meaning self-appraisal” and a “purpose self-evaluation,” when I consequently broke free from doing what was expected of me and from what I was told I was supposed to do, when I saw I was really in the people business as much as, if not more, in the information transmission and skill development business, when I went cold turkey on scholarly research and publication, and when I voluntarily turned to the classroom whole hog to transform myself from a researching and publishing scholarly professor to an intensely student-loving teacher.

    • Katie

      I wonder if the shift from development of self, of career, of that for which accolades are given, to your investment in others does not harken back to Erikson’s stages that include generativity and, later the maturity that comes, ideally, with age. In an age that seems more individualistic and self-centered than any other (with selfie sticks and Facebook postings to help us be good at self-enhancement), you embraced the rare gift of other-centeredness. An somewhat ironic blessing for yourself, and straightforward blessing for those you teach. Kudos!

  • Cat Greenstreet

    You kill me with delight!

  • Every day that holds a Mary Oliver poem is a good day in my book.

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  • Valarie lee James

    mmmmmmm! One of her best poems by far. Such light filled words! Than you for sharing this,
    for making my day.

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