reason, but they attract;
if I find there is nothing to gain
from them, I still follow
William Stafford, "Every Morning All Over Again," from You Must Revise Your Life, p.38
These lines above, borrowed from Stafford's poem, lead us to think and question the main thesis of his book on poetry: You must revise your life. Why this book, this theme -- and, by the way, why poetry?
I will begin with the question, "Why poetry?" The most simple answer is because we cannot escape it. Poetry is everywhere: the commercials that fill our airwaves, the songs we sing, and the valentines we receive and give and cry or laugh over. We love a rhyme, particularly one that challenges the mind or tugs at the heart.
Poetry provides the soundtrack against which we live our lives. But this is only part of my answer to the question, "Why poetry?" Those of you who read my blogs and are familiar with my background know that I wear two hats. One hat is that of the Jungian psychoanalyst; the other hat is that of the theologically and psychologically trained pastoral counselor.
But there is another hat I slip on, particularly when I am home alone and think no one is looking. That is the hat of the poet. Granted, I don this headwear most likely when I play the guitar and sing the ballads of my early life and the lyrics of contemporary songs that appeal to my mind and heart. For example, who could not pause and think when Bob Dylan sings his couplet, "He not busy being born is busy dying," or Paul Simon mesmerizes us with the haunting words to "American Tune":
I don't know a soul who's not been battered.
I don't know a friend who feels at ease,
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered.
Or driven to its knees.
Oh, but it's all right; it's all right.
For we lived so well so long.
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on,
I wonder what went wrong.
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong.
(1973, Words and Music by Paul Simon)
Those are examples of contemporary poems put to music, words that grab us and lead us to think and feel, and -- maybe -- even to change our life around. Which brings me back to the opening words of William Stafford.
To begin, he states his thesis very clearly: You must revise your life! What exactly does he mean? Are we to change our life itself, our patterns of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting? Or are we to change the narrative of our life, the story we tell, our sense of identity and place in the world? Or, is Stafford referring to both, our life itself but also the story we tell about our life?
So often people walk into my consulting room and harangue me with such platitudes as, "A leopard cannot change his spots;" or, "I am what I am;" or "Everybody feels (or thinks or acts) this way." Part of them truly believes what they are saying while another part is pleading with me, "Please change my life."
So there we are, and here is Stafford who says quite simply, "You must revise your life." Think about it. Follow me closely here. Stafford's declaration is a summons to hear a truth we all know, a truth that is the very bedrock of psychoanalysis and the teachings of world religions at their best. That truth is this: As Stafford might say it, my life at this moment is only a draft of the story it might become, the person I am becoming. True, there may have been betrayals, tragedies, traumas, great triumphs, defeating patterns of living that have harmed others and injured myself. I may feel like the biker who has tattooed on his arm, "Born to lose."
But no one of us is born to lose. No matter how our life appears to be at this moment, it is only a draft, a draft which can be revised. How? Stafford gives us some clue about how he approaches the revisions of his life.
Some kind of magnetism turns me when I am walking in the woods
with no intention.
There are leadings without any reason, but they attract.
These "leadings," to which Stafford refers, appear seemingly from nowhere. This seems strange to us because with our left-brain directedness we try to control everything and ignore the nudgings that come from deep within our soul. However, those nudgings come -- always -- and remind us of our unlived life that wants to be given expression.
Sound too simple? Try it. Go into the woods. Get away from the clamor. Listen and feel. You will be surprised at the voice that calls you home to yourself and what Stafford calls "a certain security of character." (p. IX) That is a state of mind we could describe as "solid" and "free," an integrity of oneself where the great tugs and pulls of life find a reconciling center. It is not that the woods have some magical effect upon us. In fact we can have this experience anywhere that allows for the instinctual life to be integrated with our spiritual self.
In our one lifetime, we are many selves; in our one lifetime, we come upon many choices, many decisions. As the bumper sticker says, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results." "Sanity," on the other hand, is to become conscious of what we are doing when we continue to live our lives the same way and repeat those defeating patterns. We become conscious of what our life wants to become. Then the revision begins.