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The On Being Project

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.

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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