9. POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, AND PSYCHOLOGY, OR LOST SHEEP A PANICKY COW, A WISE MOTHER CHEETAH, AND EVEN SOME HUMAN BEINGS
“When you argue with reality, you lose. But only 100 per cent of the time.”
I have a poet friend who taught poetry and creative writing in a university for about 40 years and then, after he retired from the English Department, began to teach courses in the Philosophy Department. The transition makes sense, because poets, like philosophers and psychologists and other thinkers, are interested in such things as wisdom, moral values, and how to be happy (or at least not unhappy). Whenever poetry is involved, however, it’s not just the philosophical or psychological ideas that matter, but the particular way in which those ideas are expressed.
Look at this brief and seemingly unsophisticated Mother Goose poem:
Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep,
And can't tell where to find them;
Leave them alone, and they'll come home
And bring their tails behind them.
Notice that the first two lines suggest a potential problem: lost sheep. Yes, life certainly does have its difficulties and challenges. But there’s a shift that begins with the third line. This short poem—using images of a little girl and her sheep, and rimes (even an internal rime in the first line)—speaks to the importance of patience. Instead of worrying about this or that—for instance, what happened to all of those sheep? and calling up so many negative what if scenarios . . . the poem implies that it’s best to relax, step back, leave things alone, and see what happens. Or, to put it another way: the poem says, in effect: Here is the reality: Little Bo Peep’s sheep have been lost and she doesn’t know, at least right now, how she’ll find them. It’s interesting that when we just stay with the facts and don’t allow our thoughts to stray (like Bo Peep’s sheep) beyond the facts, we feel clear-headed. That’s because we aren’t arguing with reality; instead, we’re in synch with it. On the other hand, when we argue with reality, we can easily become frustrated. The Buddhists and other Eastern thinkers, as well as many Western psychotherapists and thinkers, say that suffering happens when we want—or expect—things to be different from what they are. When I’m in a worrying state, I sometimes recall an old song from my youth, whose refrain was: “Don’t worry, be happy.”
There’s a poem by the ancient Persian poet, Rumi, with a similar theme to the Mother Goose poem above. In “A Small Green Island,” translated by Coleman Barks, Rumi describes a white cow living alone on an island. In the daytime she grazes on the grass, which is abundant and waist-high, and by evening it’s “clipped short.” But every night, after having become “full of strength and energy” from eating the good grass, the cow panics, and grows “abnormally thin.” Rumi tells us that the island represents “the world,” and the cow represents “the bodily soul.” He says that the cow “never thinks, This meadow has never failed/to grow back” so why should she “be afraid every night/that it won’t?” Here’s the last stanza:
White cow, don't make yourself miserable
with what's to come, or not to come.
What Rumi and Mother Goose say is true: we tend to make ourselves miserable by obsessing over what has happened in the past and/ or what we think may—or may not—happen in the future. We manufacture disturbing stories (or, perhaps more accurately, they manufacture themselves spontaneously in our mind). Rumi’s poem says the same thing that sages of philosophy and psychology have been saying for thousands of years: Live in the moment (which is the only time we’re alive anyway); trust yourself; accept what can’t be changed to suit you—even if you don’t happen to like what can’t be changed. The sages say that it’s best to face what is, rather than denying or resisting it. Byron Katie, in her book, LOVING WHAT IS, says that arguing with reality is like trying to teach a cat to bark. No matter how long and hard you work at it, the cat will look up at you and say “meeow.”
Poems—like the ones from Mother Goose and Rumi—often tell us valuable and useful things about our lives. In fact, poems can be life-enhancing, and life-altering. It should not be surprising that there is a field of clinical psychology called Poetry Therapy, which involves a specific degree for certification, and therapists who encourage their clients to read and write poetry, a practice that can aid healing from difficult life situations. Most of us who love poetry can recall a poem that helped us in some way get through a crisis, or to deal with a sad event.
Unlike philosophers and other thinkers, who tend to speak in abstract terms, poets say what they say with images. For instance: sheep, a little girl tending them, an island meadow, a white cow growing fat; but then—because it allows itself to argue with reality—growing lean and sickly.
I have in my memory—as well as near my desk pinned to cork boards—many quotes from various thinkers and writers, past and present. I tend to call on these quotes whenever I’m wishing for things to be different from what they are (a common human habit).
For instance, like most people, I’m not at all enchanted with the reality of aging. I appreciate Tennyson’s line in a poem about Ulysses: “Though much is taken, much abides.” And I also like what Robert Browning said about aging in a poem that many of us are familiar with: “Grow old with me! /The best is yet to be./The last of life, for which the first was made . . .” Then he advises us that age is the time to: “ . . . take and use thy work: Amend what flaws may lurk . . .” and then, most importantly of all: “Look not thou down but up!” These are comforting words for anyone over 60 or so.
One of my close-by quotes is from the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (I also carry it in my billfold): “Do not seek to have everything that happens as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.” And here’s another quote, which is a paraphrase of the Epictetus quote. It’s by Sharon Bakewell, who recently wrote a fist-rate biography of the French philosopher, Montaigne, a contemporary of Shakespeare: “One should be able to accept everything just as it is, willingly, without giving into the futile longing to change it.”
Here’s another quote by Epictetus that I consider indispensible: “What disturbs our minds is not events but our judgments on events.” So true: it’s not what happens to us (which we often have no control over) that matters nearly as much as our attitude toward it—in other words, as I mentioned above: the problems often are the result of clinging to the thoughts, stories, and scenarios in our mind, which tend to have a life of their own and take us far beyond the bounds of reason and reality—and clear-headed thinking that recognizes reality for what it is. As the cliché goes, we make mountains out of mole hills. Instead, Epictetus and Rumi and others admonish us to accept reality, and to trust it, just as it is. Otherwise, we’re fighting a battle that we can’t win.
PART II. POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, PSYCHOLOGY . . .
“Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the while
I am being carried by great winds across the sky."
--Ojibway saying (tr. by Robert Bly)
Consider Lao Tzu who, about 2500 years ago in China, used the image of a tree that bends, yielding to a powerful wind and thereby surviving; whereas a tree that stands rigid and resists the wind, can easily snap, and perish. Lao Tzu also spoke of going with the flow, a metaphor that’s been used so commonly over the centuries that it’s become a cliché. Essentially, what it means is that it’s always best to accept the ups and downs of life instead of resisting them. By accepting reality, Lao Tzu says, we learn to cope, and to grow and mature.
Here’s a brief poem by Stephen Crane:
A man said to the universe, “Sir, I exist!”
“That fact,” replied the universe,
“does not create in me a sense of obligation.”
Perhaps if we accepted the philosophy expressed in Crane’s poem, and lived according to that philosophy, we might very well be less anxious and less disappointed when things don’t go our way. Again, the poem may be useful to consult or recite to oneself, when feeling that, for instance, “life isn’t fair,” or “nothing seems to go my way.”
I appreciate the practical wisdom expressed so convincingly in Mary Oliver’s well-known poem, “The Journey.” The poem begins: “One day you finally knew/what you had to do, and began . . .” So, to paraphrase: You decided to leave, to seek something new in your life, even though those around you were “shouting” at you: “Mend my life!” But you kept going. It was a “wild night” and the road you were traveling on was “full of fallen/branches and stones.” You kept on moving, and eventually, as the stars “began to burn/through the sheets of clouds,” you began to hear a “new voice,” which you realized was your own voice,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
“The Journey” is based on a very old and I would think universal metaphor: each of us has our own particular journey or path through life, which can be travelled only by us individually. Here is how the French novelist, Marcel Proust, expressed it:
We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves,
after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can
make for us, which no one else can spare us.
You leave your childhood home and go off to college or to a job or the military, or get married. And to do this means having to let go of a former way of life that you’ve been used to for quite some time. Oliver’s ending lines quoted above say that, finally, the only life we can actually save is our own. This revelation can cause some suffering, especially if it involves leaving others behind who depended on us, or whom we depended on. “The Journey” is for me a positive poem: it affirms our need to find our own way in the world, however rugged the journey may be. Yes, we can help others, and encourage and support them, but they have their own journey, just as we have ours. It takes equanimity to be able to hold up our heads and cope with, for example, a crisis, a disease, a death in the family, or the reality of aging.
Recently I saw a program on TV about cheetahs, and how one day the mother of two young males suddenly abandoned them—making sure they couldn’t follow her. According to the narrator, the mother cheetah knows instinctively that the only way her offspring will survive is if she leaves them. At first, I was thinking, anthropomorphically, that the mother’s action was cruel, since it was fairly obvious that the young males weren’t mature enough to capture and kill, or defend themselves. But then, as I watched them more and more—chasing prey animals and at first failing to catch any—the mother’s instinctive actions began to make sense to me.
It happens to be the same for human families: children grow up and eventually must learn to fend for themselves. Or, another familiar way of putting it: there comes a time when a child must “sink or swim.” It may seem sad and scary to parents, when their children leave home and strike out on their own, but it’s the only way the children will ever be able to make their own life. And then, of course, those children will eventually do the same thing with their own offspring (note the word’s meaning: children “spring off” of their parents into their own life.) And on and on the off-springing goes, generating more and more generations.
Many of us are aware of Alfred (Lord) Tennyson’s famous ending line from his poem “Ulysses,” a line which was deservedly (and permanently) emblazoned on a wall in Olympic Village in London, to celebrate the 2012 Olympic Games:
. . . to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Tennyson’s line is a powerful, inspirational statement about never giving up, about going forward until you succeed—an idea that works especially well in a sporting context. And yet, as I mentioned in connection with the ancient Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, there is also power and courage in yielding. It’s of course generally best to go forward with boldness, and to never give up. But sometimes the wiser—and also courageous—choice is to give with reality, with what is—to acquiesce, the way a tree bends in the wind. It’s similar to the way a judo master can give with an offensive move by an opponent, so as to turn the aggressor’s power back onto the aggressor.
According to the AA prayer/poem, it takes “serenity to accept the things we can’t change, courage to change the things we can change, and wisdom to know the difference.” Note again, the importance of acceptance—of having to let go of the past. Meditation, an Eastern practice that goes back thousands of years—and which is becoming more and more common in Western countries such as the U.S—also encourages acceptance, or letting go of the past. It too, emphasizes living in the present moment, the NOW.
Here’s a short poem called “Prayer” by the contemporary American poet, Galway Kinnell:
Whatever happens. Whatever
is is is what I want.
Only that. But that.
Kinnell’s poem is an excellent example of how poetry and philosophy can exist together. It agrees completely with Epictetus, Lao Tzu, and other sages of the past, as well as recent sages and healers, such as Byron Katie and Eckhart Tolle.
But what the poet created here is also a fine poem. Have you ever in your life seen three “is’s” in a row, each of them with a different meaning?
Now, here’s something you might want to try for yourself: Make a poem with three of the same words in it—maybe even in a row—and make sure that each word has a separate meaning. And make some kind of statement in your poem—maybe you’d like to respond to a philosophical notion that interests you.
What sayings or poems by thinkers, philosophers, psychologists, poets and others, do you tend to remember (or keep on hand, maybe pinned to a wall in your office, or in your billfold or purse), because they have been and still are helpful to you in difficult times?
Can you match a particular favorite saying or poem with a particular event in your life, and say how reading it or recalling it helped you deal with something that was troubling?
Let me recommend a couple of books in the field of poetry therapy: THE HEALING FOUNTAIN: POETRY THERAPY FOR LIFE’S JOURNEY, edited by Geri Giebel Chavis and Lila Lizabeth Weisberger, and SAVED BY A POEM, by Kim Rosen.