Few things limit us more profoundly than our own beliefs about what we deserve, and few things liberate us more powerfully than daring to broaden our locus of possibility and self-permission for happiness. The stories we tell ourselves about what we are worthy or unworthy of — from the small luxuries of naps and watermelon to the grandest luxury of a passionate creative calling or a large and possible love — are the stories that shape our lives. Bruce Lee knew this when he admonished that “you will never get any more out of life than you expect,” James Baldwin knew it when he admonished that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble,” and Viktor Frankl embodied this in his impassioned insistence on saying “yes” to life.
The more vulnerable-making the endeavor, the more reflexive the limitation and the more redemptive the liberation.
That difficult, delicate, triumphal pivot from self-limitation to self-liberation in the most vulnerable-making of human undertakings — love — is what poet and philosopher David Whyte, who thinks deeply about these questions of courage and love, maps out in his stunning poem “The Truelove,” found in his book The Sea in You: Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love (public library) and read here, by David’s kind assent to my invitation, in his sonorous Irish-tinted English voice, in his singular style of echoing lines to let them reverberate more richly:
by David Whyte
There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.
I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.
Years ago in the Hebrides,
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,
and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them
and how we are all
preparing for that
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love
so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
after all this struggle
and all these years
you simply don’t want to
you’ve simply had enough
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
“The Truelove” appears in the short, splendid course of poem-anchored contemplative practices David guides for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit, in which he reads each poem, offers an intimate tour of the landscape of experience from which it arose, and reflects on the broader existential quickenings it invites.
Couple this generous gift of a poem with “Sometimes” — David’s perspectival poem about living into the questions of our becoming, also part of Waking Up — then revisit the Noble-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on great love and James Baldwin, who believed that poet are “the only people who know the truth about us” — on love and the illusion of choice.
We are born into the certitude of our eventual death. Every once in a while, something — perhaps an encounter with a robin’s egg, perhaps a poem — staggers us with the awful, awe-filled wonder of aliveness, the sheer luck of it against the overwhelming cosmic odds of nonexistence. But alloyed with the awe is always the half-conscious grief that one day the light of consciousness will be extinguished. It is a heavy gift to hold, this doomed delirium of aliveness. It is also a buoyant gladness, if we are limber enough to stretch into the cosmic perspective that does not come naturally to us small, Earth-bound bipeds corticed with tender self-importance.
For each of us, one thing is true: Had any one variable been ever so subtly different — had your parents mated on a different day or at a different altitude, had the early universe cooled a fraction of a second faster after the Big Bang, you would not exist as the particular constellation of atoms configuring the particular consciousness that makes you you. Because chance plays such dice with the universe, and because the die dictates that the vast majority of energy and matter never had the luck of cohering into this doomed delirium of aliveness, it is, in some profound and practical sense, a staggering privilege to die — one that betokens the privilege of having lived. To lament death, then, is to lament our luck, for any negation of the possibility of death is a negation of the improbable miracle of life, a wish for there to be nothing to do the dying — nothing to have partaken of the beautiful, bittersweet temporality of aliveness.
Possible Certainties. Photograph by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)
It is easier to bend the intuitive mind into this correct but counterintuitive perspective while walking in a cemetery at the height of summer. Doing this very thing while thinking these very thoughts, I was reminded of a passage from one of the most lucid and lens-clearing books written this side of Darwin — Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (public library) by the visionary and often controversial (which is the social fate of every visionary) British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
A civilization after Marcus Aurelius celebrated mortality as the key to living fully, half a millennium after Montaigne observed that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago,” and a scientific epoch after Darwin contemplated the meaning of mortality in the wake of his beloved daughter’s death, Dawkins writes:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here. We privileged few, who won the lottery of birth against all odds, how dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?
Complement with astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s exquisite “Antidotes to Fear of Death,” Nick Cave on grief as a portal to aliveness, and Christopher Hitchens on how to live with our mortality, then revisit the science of how alive you really are, examined through the curious lens of trees and Alan Turing.
In 1977, a young forestry student tasked with marking an ironwood tree for “release cutting” — the logging or poisoning of particular trees on the dogmatic premise that their demise would release more commercially valuable nearby trees from competition for light and nutrients — suddenly felt uneasy holding the can of orange spray paint, disquieted by the awareness that old-growth forests have thrived for millennia without such amputations, intuiting that something far more complex and mutualistic might be at work beneath the surface story of resource rivalry.
She was told not to question the dogma, not to be “so Clementsian” — an allusion to the visionary work of ecologists Edith and Frederic Clements, a century ahead of their time in the empirically grounded insistence that plants are not rugged individuals in combat for biological capital but a collaborative community of life.
That young forester grew into the biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus. Now swimming in the ever-growing sea of studies that defy the dogma of competition by illuminating how plants succor and sustain each other’s survival, she reflects:
Here is what I love about the scientific method. Though culture seeps into science and sometimes holds its finger on the scale, it cannot stop the restless search for measurable truth. Un-American or not, the math has to work. When fifty years of wall-to-wall research into competition proved inconclusive, researchers went back to the field to find out what else was at play.
Art by Madeleine Jubilee Saito from All We Can Save
Alongside activists, poets, policymakers, and other scientists, Benyus is one of the frontier-women decolonizing climate leadership — visionaries united by a fierce willingness to contend with the big, unanswered, often unasked questions that leaven our possible future and to begin answering them in novel ways worthy of a world that prizes creativity over consumption and pluralism over profiteering. Their voices and visions rise from the pages of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis (public library) — Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson’s altogether inspiriting anthology, composed as “a balm and a guide for the immense emotional complexity of knowing and holding what has been done to the world, while bolstering our resolve never to give up on one another or our collective future,” and titled after the final verse of Adrienne Rich’s immense poem “Natural Resources,” written the year the young Benyus faced the ironwood tree with her uneasy spray can:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Praise Song for Dawn by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
In the second essay from the anthology, titled “Reciprocity,” Benyus recounts her early reckoning with the misguided model of ecological relationships and reflects on the half-century of research into the strategies plants actually use to thrive — research revealing cooperation rather than competition as the animating force of life:
To read these strategies is to discover a manual for how life evolved on a challenging planet and how natural communities heal and overcome adversity — essential reading for a climate-changed world.
The more stressful the environment, the more likely you are to see plants working together to ensure mutual survival.
Drawing on the spirit of biomimicry — the borrowing of processes and principles from nature to make our endeavors in the human world more effective and elegant — Benyus intimates the obvious analogy to the zero-sum fallacy upon which the modern world is built: The scarcity model underpinning capitalism might be just as unrealistic, unsustainable, and damaging as the forestry dogma that until recently brutalized wildernesses with the premise that trees are separate individuals hogging resources for themselves.
Dismantling these fallacies might be especially challenging in America, in whose young mind Emerson’s cry of rugged individualism still reverberates: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” But half a century of quiet, empirically unassailable research into the nature of nature — of which, lest we forget, we are a (frequently reluctant) part — indicates that the symphony orchestra of life is only sonorous when we trust one another.
Art by Madeleine Jubilee Saito from All We Can Save
A generation after one of humanity’s deepest-seeing poets insisted that “anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet,” Benyus illustrates the delicate mutualisms that make our rocky planet a living world with studies of Chilean mountain plants, which huddle together for protection from ultraviolet rays and harsh weather, forming complex relationships of support. A single six-foot cushion plant, or yareta, can house a multitude of wildflowers in its thousand-year-old mound. Farther down the mountain, resilient trees take root on rockfalls to create tear-shaped “tree islands” that shelter seedlings from the wind, carpeted with leaves and needles from nearby trees that decompose into moisture reservoirs for the dry summer days. These tree islands grow as mammals come for shelter and birds come to roost, depositing other seeds with their metabolic output. As the islands drift over the centuries, they carry fertile new soil across the mountainside, leaving new communities of life in their wake. Benyus distills the lesson of this living lee:
Whether it comes in the form of shading, shielding, nourishing, or defending, facilitation allows plants to expand their niches, to thrive where they would normally wither. Landscapers, farmers, and foresters may want to mimic these moves by planting for partnership, including wind blockers, soil holders, water lifters, and nutrient boosters in their mixtures. As plants deal with shifting growing zones, a facilitation partner could make all the difference.
With an eye to Suzanne Simard’s epoch-making research into the “wood-wide web” through which trees communicate, she adds:
Now we know that it’s not just one plant helping another; mutualisms — complex exchanges of goodness — are playing out above- and belowground in extraordinary ways.
Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)
But while the vast majority of terrestrial plants are entwined in such underground mycelial networks of mutualism, these relationships are severed in agricultural fields, where plowing savages the delicate underground network of resource-sharing, while the regular infusions of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers decimate the vital bacterial and fungal members of that microcommunity. Benyus considers the heedless tradeoff between the immediate rewards of seasonal crops and the deep, rich sustainability of ecosystems across the sweep of time:
When communities of vegetation breathe in carbon dioxide, turn it into sugars, and feed it to microbial networks, they can sequester carbon deep in soils for centuries. But to do that, the communities need to be healthy, diverse, and amply partnered. If we’re to encourage wild and working landscapes to recoup the 50 to 70 percent of soil carbon that has been lost to the atmosphere, we’ll want to pause before plowing a field, opening a bag of fertilizer, or marking a sapling for removal. We wouldn’t want to interrupt a vital conversation.
If humans are to help reverse global warming, we will need to step into the flow of the carbon cycle in new ways, stopping our excessive exhale of carbon dioxide and encouraging the winded ecosystems of the planet to take a good long inhale as they heal. It will mean learning to help the helpers, those microbes, plants, and animals that do the daily alchemy of turning carbon into life. This mutualistic role, this practice of reciprocity, will require a more nuanced understanding of how ecosystems actually work. The good news is that we’re finally developing a feeling for the organismic, after years of wandering in the every-plant-for-itself paradigm.
Art by Madeleine Jubilee Saito from All We Can Save
In a passage that strikes me as the ecological counterpart to Chinua Achebe’s lovely notion of art as “collective communal enterprise,” she envisions an alternate possible future and considers what it asks of us:
One of the fallouts of our fifty-year focus on competition is that we came to view all organisms as consumers and competitors first, including ourselves. Now we’re decades into a different understanding. By recognizing, at last, the ubiquity of sharing and chaperoning, by acknowledging the fact that communal traits are quite natural, we get to see ourselves anew. We can return to our role as nurturers, each a helper among helpers in this planetary story of collaborative healing.
Complement this fragment of the wholly galvanizing All We Can Save with the visionary ecologist and conservationist William Vogt’s unheeded long-ago manifesto for course-correcting our ecological trajectory, then revisit “The Big Picture” — Ellen Bass’s immense and intimate poem of perspective and persistence, which also appears in the anthology.