Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The antidote to exhaustion 

"This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.
And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on
and cling to every day,
is like the swan,
when he nervously lets himself down into the water,
which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave, while the swan,
unmoving and marvellously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on."

The Swan, by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

I'm working my way carefully through David Whyte's "Crossing the Unknown Sea". This book must be the most significant I have read for a very long time. Rather than race through to the end, each chapter, each page deserves time to absorb its message. Whyte’s notions are both simple and profound, touching the very core of what it is to be human; his language, although accessible, is also beautiful (well, what else would you expect from a poet?) and creates understanding on a level beyond the merely rational; not only does the head involuntarily nod in agreement, but heart and soul recognise what is being spoken to them.

Whyte here is in conversation with Brother David, who says, in response to a question from Whyte:

‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’

‘You are so tired through and through because a good half of what you do here in this organization has nothing to do with your true powers, or the place you have reached in your life. You are only half here, and half here will kill you after a while. You need something to which you can give your full powers. You know what that is; I don't have to tell you.’

‘You are like Rilke's Swan in his awkward waddling across the ground; the swan doesn't cure his awkwardness by beating himself on the back, by moving faster, or by trying to organize himself better. He does it by moving toward the elemental water, where he belongs. It is the simple contact with the water that gives him grace and presence. You only have to touch the elemental waters in your own life, and it will transform everything. But you have to let yourself down into those waters from the ground on which you stand, and that can be hard. Particularly if you think you might drown.’

Someone else apparently thought this was a significant point in Whyte’s book, since a larger extract can be found here.

Being only half present, exhausted, knowing that I’m in danger of undergoing a slow death of the soul; knowing that in the context of work, those feeble, malnourished remnants of the powers I still have are atrophying still further through lack of exercise… yes, I feel all of that. Yet in spite of how those words might sound, I don’t feel it in a melancholy, powerless, woe-is-me kind of way, but as a partially detached observer, me-watching-me, coming to a realisation of the structure that underlies these Big Questions.

Questions such as “Where are my elemental waters?” I have a feeling the answer is jumping up and down waving its arms in front of me, and I’m just too blind, or too dumb, or simply looking the wrong way to see it. Most likely the latter.

Back to current posts