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The On Being Project

The Light in the Darkness Around Us

William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other” isn’t a simple poem — but please hang on through all its twists and turns! It’s full of wisdom about what we can do to help right wrongs that often feel overwhelming.

The racism and religious bigotry that darken our world come, in part, from the fact that we don’t know “the other” in his or her simple and sacred humanity. That’s why we’re constantly at risk of “following the wrong god home” and allowing “a pattern that others made to prevail in the world.”

We need to reach out across our lines of otherness — to learn that our differences are assets, not threats. But first we must meet a few challenges, as Stafford’s poem suggests:

Do we have the honesty to acknowledge our own shadow, to refuse to pretend that “our tribe” always holds the moral high ground?

Can we stop trying to fool each other and start telling the truth, “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark?”

Can we stay awake and not be lulled back to sleep, knowing that when we succumb to the lesser angels of our nature, the darkness around us grows deeper than deep?

Let’s say a clear “Yes” to the dignity and inherent worth of all people. Let’s say a clear “No” to anyone who, in word or deed, tries to strip others of those qualities. Let’s live our lives as light that dispels the darkness.

A Ritual to Read to Each Other
By William Stafford

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each
elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

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