The Mystery at the Heart of Being Human

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 - 5:00 am

The Mystery at the Heart of Being Human

For some of us, “soul” is an important word. But it’s a word to be held lightly, in open hands. It points to the mystery at the heart of being human — a mystery known by many names whose true name no one knows.

Secular humanists call it “identity and integrity.” Hasidic Jews call it “the spark of the divine in every being.” Thomas Merton called it “true self.” Quakers call it “the inner light.” Buddhists call it, paradoxically, “Big Self” and “No-Self.”

What you call it doesn’t matter — but that you call it something matters a great deal. When we fail to name and celebrate the “being” in “human being,” we are more likely to treat each other like objects, commodities, or machines. In an era of non-stop violence to the human self, we must lift up the fact that everyone has an inviolable, sacred core.

Here are “a few words on the soul” by Wislawa Szymborska, the gifted Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature. Szymborska has a wonderful way of writing about elusive truths with a mix of gravitas and lightness that helps us see more deeply into what it means to be human.

“A Few Words On The Soul”
by Wislawa Szymborska

We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
for keeps.

Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.

Sometimes
it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.

It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.

It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.

For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.

Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.

It’s picky:
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
or hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.

Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.

We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.

Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.

It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.

We need it
but apparently
it needs us
for some reason too.

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Contributor

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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Reflections

  • Gabby

    Does calling it something really matter, or is feeling it, definitely, what matters? Does each of us need a “word” for this – or for everything we may be or feel? Can something not live in the spaces between, around, or beyond words?
    I do not feel its absence myself when chopping or hauling bags of hay, perhaps because that rich intertwining of joy and sorry does not desert me then either.
    But then, does it actually desert us during our moments of greatest joy, when sorrow is far from view? Does it desert us in the moment when all we are feeling is love- when we cradle the baby or nurse it, for example?

  • Louis Schmier

    The more I think about the “being” in human being, the more I see a dynamic and unique potential in each of us. That why I always saw each person as a “human ‘becoming.'”

  • Camilla Louise Greene

    As a conscious African American elder with Quaker roots, I often tell different groups of people with whom I interact that most of us are too consumed with “doing” rather than with “being” When we consider the work we need to do as individuals and as groups to dismantle racism and white supremacy, we must begin with ourselves. Too many people want to “fix” others. The only person you can change is your self. The work of developing the will, skill, courage, knowledge and Love to dismantle racism in the not so United States is inside out work. In the skin I live in I have to practice being liberated in a white supremacist country. People in white skin identity have to practice being anti racist. This is an ongoing journey for each of us not a destination.

  • Camilla Louise Greene

    As a conscious African American elder with Quaker roots, I often tell different groups of people with whom I interact that most of us are too consumed with “doing” rather than with “being” When we consider the work we need to do as individuals and as groups to dismantle racism and white supremacy, we must begin with ourselves. Too many people want to “fix” others. The only person you can change is your self. The work of developing the will, skill, courage, knowledge and Love to dismantle racism in the not so United States is inside out work. In the skin I live in I have to practice being liberated in a white supremacist country. People in white skin identity have to practice being anti racist. This is an ongoing journey for each of us not a destination.

  • Garry Coulter

    I like Ms. Szymborska’s words to explain, experience and explore the soul. She says “it favours clocks with pendulums and mirrors that keep on working even when no one is looking “. How well that sums up all we don’t know or understand or even sometimes acknowledge. I think there is something comforting in not always having an answer and with this acceptance comes a degree of freedom ‘that no ones got it non-stop for keeps’. I was thinking about this today as I walked about my world, masking, with a good many years of practice, who I am or wanted to be. Finally she says we need the soul and apparently it needs us. What a wonderfully positive, hopeful poem for us sinners indeed.

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