Walt Whitman’s Advice for a Kind and Authentic Life

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 - 4:12 pm

Walt Whitman’s Advice for a Kind and Authentic Life

Normally, I run as fast as I can from statements that begin, “This is what you shall do…” Let’s just say that I have authority issues!

But when I ran across this excerpt from Walt Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass many years ago, I paid attention, and I’m glad I did.

I love the grounded quality of Whitman’s counsel. In it, I find a powerful antidote to our tendency to get distracted by bling, to lust after shiny things, to bow down to false authority and lose our souls in the process.

As one who believes that the best guidance comes from within — as long as you sift and sort it in community with people you trust — I like to write my own version of “This is what you shall do…” every now and then.

Give it a try! It’s a wonderful way to remind yourself of what’s truly important to you.

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men — go freely with powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and with the mothers of families — re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem, and have the richest fluency, not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face, and between the lashes of your eyes, and in every motion and joint of your body.”

— Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves 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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  • As a young adult I said, “God, if you’re there, I’m sorry, but I can’t handle what everyone’s telling me is right and wrong about you and about me. So I’m going to just forget about their rules and worship and live my life as best as I can. If that’s not good enough for you and you’re going to doom me to Hell, I’m sorry, but it’s all I can handle.”
    You and Mr. Whitman reminded me of that goal and looking back 25 years later, I’m still on that path of exploration. I’m glad that over the last 10-15 years, I’ve really added that “in community with people you trust” part. I’ve been able to cobble together my own tribe to help me filter and grow.

  • Birrell Walsh

    “Be as kind as you can. Do not shame others and do not accept shaming. And rejoice in all you love.”

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