Lectio Poetica: Becoming Who We Are

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“All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves.” – David Whyte

During the catastrophic flooding here in Colorado back in September, we discovered a tiny sparrow lurking in our patio garden. We could see something was wrong, but could not discern exactly what. It hopped out from under the safety of a bush along the wall to peck at seeds knocked unceremoniously off the bird feeder hanging overhead in our little tree.

Other birds came and went. Chikadees. Nut hatches. Mourning doves. Woodpeckers. Squirrels scampered up and down the trunk, helping themselves to the seeds as well. Sometimes the ground was crowded with creatures, a regular cafeteria.

Every day the rains came down, we looked for the wounded sparrow, hoping it would survive to fly again. If indeed it had ever flown before. After all, that’s what birds do. Just as squirrels hang upside down on bird feeders, and try to get inside. Just as woodpeckers bang their heads like jack hammers on the branches. It’s what they do.

“All the birds and creatures of the world,” says David Whyte, “are unutterably themselves” (“Everything is Waiting for You,” River Flow, 2007).

We don’t look for squirrels to come inside the house and curl up like puppies in our laps. We don’t expect injured sparrows to check themselves into a veterinary clinic. We expect them to live and die according to their nature. If woodpeckers carried hammers on their belts, if beavers used chain saws to build their lodges, if snarling bunnies chased big dogs down the street, we’d be alarmed.

Why, then, are we not alarmed when we ourselves go on for years, for decades, for entire lives in some cases, acting as if we are not who and what we are?

Every other living thing is just what it is. Only humans are not. Only we can violate our own nature. Only we can falsify ourselves, and become literally something or someone we are not.

Poets, mystics and philosophers remind us, indict us, and call us back to our true nature.

“None of us live our lives,” writes Rilke. “Disguised since childhood, / haphazardly assembled / from voices and fears and little pleasures, / we come of age as masks. / Our true face never speaks.” He likens our unlived lives to old clothes, hanging on a peg in a forgotten storehouse. Limp and empty.

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else,” asserts Ralph Waldo Emerson, “is the greatest achievement.” Psychologist Erich Fromm agrees. “Our main task in life,” he says, “is to give birth to ourselves, to become what we potentially are.”

In her poem, “Now I Become Myself” (Collected Poems, 1993), May Sarton catches a glimpse of this birthing, this becoming, this almost mystical awakening:

“Now I become myself. It’s taken / Time, many years and places; / I’ve been dissolved and shaken, / Worn other people’s faces . . . Now to stand still, be here, / Feel my own weight and density! . . . All fuses now, falls into place . . . my work, my love, my time, my face . . . Oh, in this single hour I live / All of myself and do not move . . .”

In the vast expanse of space and time, each one of us is utterly unique.

We come equipped with a singular blend of genetic dispositions, quirks of personality, life experiences, education, ideas, limitations, longings, dreams and callings—unlike any other being. We are “called” by our unique nature to give birth to who and what we are, to germinate our innate potential, like seeds, to offer our gifts to the world and, ultimately, by doing so, to find our place in what Mary Oliver calls “the family of things.”

There is something we are “meant” to do, I believe, just because of how we’re made. Something that our souls need us to do, to become fully who we are, to become unutterably ourselves. Like all the birds and creatures of the world.

If we’ve been wounded, like the sparrow in the garden, we care for ourselves. We don’t give up. We hide, while we must, in the dark. We come out, when it’s time, into the light. And when the storms abate, one day, hopefully, if it is our nature, we take flight.

When the skies cleared at last, the tiny bird was gone. We can’t be certain, but we hope it did what birds are meant to do. It did not belong forever under a bush. Just as you and I do not belong forever in certain places, doing certain things that fail to honor our very reason for being.

Something else is calling. Something living and life-giving.

Somewhere deep inside each of us is an unlived life, yearning to be born; waiting, as Rilke says elsewhere, like an unplayed melody in a flute. Isn’t it time to pick up the flute and play the song we’re meant to play? If not now, when?