This phrase is of course taken from Mary Oliver’s famous poem, The Summer Day —
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?
I came across this poem nearly a decade ago, and it still echoes around within my being.
The question can be read in many ways actually.
When I first encountered it, it felt like a dare. I think this is how we moderns are inclined. With the hyper-individualism that marks our societies, we feel such pressure to prove the value and point of our very existence. We have to validate ourselves in whatever way we can muster, from grades in school to performance in the bedroom and the boardroom, to our social media following.
“Let me show you how my singular, unique life is an unfettered, incomparable expression of carbon.”
It also feels like a taunt. The human enterprise is a tension-filled reality where our actions, dreams, and desires do not always line up or work out.
“That’s what I planned, but it didn’t work out the way I hope.”
Indeed, some of us hear the emphasis on ‘plan’, and we vacillate between achievement and anxiety, for we all know how plans operate, rarely according to plan — especially when other humans are involved.
These two lines really cannot be read apart from Mary’s enthrallment with the grasshopper and her memento mori:
This grasshopper, I mean —
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
There is so much admission and confession going on here. She is astonished at the details that she is noticing about this common insect, a kind of epiphany for her. It associates for her the great mystery that is prayer. and the heart of all communication, which is attention. But just as our brains are wont to work, she is carried away by the memory and longing of being.
And — Everything does die too soon.
So it comes down to this: the poem isn’t about what we plan to do. It is about what we have to do: learn to live, learn to be, learn to pray. All of which requires us to believe that our lives are truly precious; and therefore must be allowed the wildness of the field and the hours, and that we have this one round of it.
In the great traditions, it is a call to embrace mystery and walk humbly and lightly.
For that, perhaps it’s worth pondering her word choice.
So here goes one, wild, and precious — in reverse order:
precious: of great value; not to be wasted or treated carelessly.
When I am in a funk and dwell on all that is missing from my life, am I not wasting my life, which also consists of my thoughts and feelings, and how they take up minutes if not whole days of my life?
What when I fuss over something I consider important at this point, but in the long scheme of things, really doesn’t matter? Am I being careless about my life?
Then there are times when pain, physical and psychical, literally holds me hostage and threatens to derail a general trajectory of purpose and growth.
Do you share these experiences?
Not a single day is monotone and goes exactly to plan. Surprises, interruptions, disruptions, inconvenience, and even reversals are a part of life, and yet, perhaps these are the things that help us see how precious life is.
Yet it is easy in our fight for life to return to type: to grasp, grip and grapple. Our refusal to bow to Life steals the immense value of our lives from us.
We return to being the arbiter and arranger of our lives, exercises that have a tendency to wear us out and leave us wrung rather than feeling cherished and at rest.
wild: living or growing in the natural environment; not domesticated or cultivated.
We have august and laborious tomes from philosophers ancient and modern, discussing the essence of humanity, the effects of civilization and modernization together with the human quest for meaning and the point of suffering.
But viscerally we all know that we are far from the delightful freedom that a loved and safe child enjoys. In the rising incidence of broken childhoods as well as the reality of “growing up”, we have become domesticated and cultivated, and not in a good way when it reduces our humanity.
Irish psychologist has borrowed this line and written an award-winning book with incisive insights on how we view time and self as we age. Today, our average lifespan in modern society is longer than it ever was in the history of humanity. Dr. Maureen Gaffney’s challenge is to reclaim the wild by daring to examine how we view self, time, and death. Her book is a call to live loud and strong by refusing to go quietly into the night because that is not a positive prospect nor a possibility.
Where so many view aging as an inevitable decline towards loss, her call is needful even if her subtitle may not be how Oliver would conceive her verse: An Inspiring Guide to Becoming Your Best Self at Any Age.
one: the lowest cardinal number
This is a fun definition in the way it so effectively conveys powerful truths. Each one of us is fundamental and important. As a self, an individual unit, and a unique individual. Yet on our own, we can easily be at our lowest.
One — can be both complete and totally lonesome.
One does not have to mean uniform and even, but can be a mix of tones, flavors, colours, and textures too. I have so many sides to who I am, and at any one time can feel so many emotions (I counted one morning, that by 10 am, I had experienced worry, gratitude, anxiety, and anticipation).
One can be a huge heavy lump that refuses to roll along and can be so very hard to break in to.
I lead a community that seeks To Really Live. To do so requires us to deep dive below the water surface, to survey the terra and water, to unlearn and re-learn life-saving and life-giving ways.
It requires us to own our lives, the complexity of the One, the fear or the flirting with the Wild, and above all, the deepest question of all: what gives our life value, makes it Precious?
Mary, you are right. I have this one, wild and precious life. I don’t always see it, feel it, know it or live it.
Thanks for calling me to take note.