Lectio Poetica: Remember the Other World

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“You are not a troubled guest on this earth, you are not an accident amidst other accidents, you were invited from another and greater night . . .” – David Whyte

In his poem “What To Remember When Waking” (The House of Belonging, 1997), David Whyte explicates the intimate and often perplexing relationship between waking life and the world of dreams — which he calls “the other more secret, moveable and frighteningly honest world where everything began.” The way for us to become who we are, to “live in our true inheritance,” says Whyte, is to “remember the other world in this world.”

It seems at first as if he’s talking about remembering, in the slowly dawning light, the dreams we had at night. But as I contemplate the poem further, I notice a number of veiled allusions to the classical Greek concept of metempsychosis or “re-animation” — otherwise known as reincarnation or transmigration of the soul. Which, I think, is kinda cool.

Propagated in the 6th century BCE by the philosopher Pythagoras — yeah, the same guy who bequeathed us his famous theorem — and elaborated dramatically in Plato’s “Myth of Er” (Book X of The Republic), metempsychosis suggests, in effect, that you and I chose our lot in life before we were born. Then we drank from the River of Forgetfulness and our souls arrived in this world incapable of recalling that “other, greater night” from which we emerged.

According to the myth, however, each of us received a daimon (pronounced, ironically, die-moan), a sort of interior companion, whose only job is to nag us night and day until we finally become the person we chose to be and do the work we’re supposed to do.

To be honest, I don’t take this story — or the idea of rebirth — literally. But something about it rings true, at least poetically. Even genetically. And I’m just enough of a romantic to feel as if I’m here for a purpose. To feel as if I have a “calling” of some sort, however enigmatic and maddeningly indecipherable it may seem.

I don’t feel like “an accident amidst other accidents,” as David Whyte puts it, or just another “troubled guest on this earth.” I feel as if I’ve been “invited from another and greater night” than the one from which I awoke this morning. As if my dreams were memories of another life — one that I have not yet lived — which calls me with increasing urgency as I age.

“What urgency calls you to your one love?” asks Whyte. “What shape waits in the seed of you to grow and spread its branches against a future sky?”

These are questions of vocation. They go beyond the need to have a job, to put bread on the table, to get ahead in our careers. They’re questions of ultimate meaning and purpose. They represent the voice of the daimon, the damned daimon, nagging, nagging, nagging until we wake up at last, until we remember that other world — the poetic world of our dreams! — in the prosaic world of everyday life.

The daimon doesn’t give a rat’s ass if it’s convenient, if pursuing and acting on your calling is easy, or makes a lot of money, or gets one or two or no thumbs up from your family, friends or colleagues. It’s your destiny, your fate, your albatross. Pay attention and do whatever it takes, or the daimon will make you miserable. It will never give up. It’s like Arnold Schwarzennegger in The Terminator. “I’ll be back,” says the daimon, with an unmistakable Austrian accent. You might as well give in. It’s exhausting and self-defeating to keep resisting.

Besides, what it demands of you, no matter how intimidating, sounds right, doesn’t it? It’s so you. No one else in the world has your particular calling. You’re irreplaceably special.

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action,” says dancer Martha Graham. “Because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium. It will be lost.”

Novelist Steven Pressfield says you’re robbing the world if you don’t act on the callings and dreams that resonate within your soul. “Think of it this way,” he writes. “If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself, even destroy yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.

“Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention,” he concludes. “It’s a gift to the world and every other being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.”

If you don’t, you’ll die moaning with regret.