David Whyte is a poet and philosopher.
Though poetry isn’t my favorite reading material, I find myself making exception for Whyte. Whenever I stumble across his words, they wow me. Like all good philosophers, he discusses ideas that can lead us to a greater appreciation for, and understanding of, human nature. For me, his stuff is like swallowing a compassion red pill.
Unlike reading books for learning, reading poetry can be a very heart-connecting experience. Reading our favorite poetry can help us to experience our emotions. Like listening to a sad or happy piece of music, it can offer a form of companionship.
The below words and quotes are from David’s beautiful book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Here’s a fair warning: this post is choc full of highly subjective ideas – it’s poetry!
States of denial are judged harshly by the world.
Our friends and families tell us to ‘stop being in denial’, when they see us not accepting a situation or circumstance. The judgment can lead you to believe that unless you have suffered a serious trauma, then you have no right to be in denial. And that you should overcome your cowardice and inaction.
David speaks of the necessity of denial, which he describes as “an underestimated state of being.” He says:
“Denial is a beautiful transitional state every human being inhabits before they are emancipated into the next larger context and orphaned, often against their will, from an old familiar home. To deny denial is to invite powers into our lives we are not yet ready for”.
Our friends play such an essential role in our personal journeys and self evolution. Close friendships can offer us honesty without judgment. That can’t as easily be achieved in romantic partnerships, and is even rarer in our family bonds. The profound ‘bearing witness’ gently assists in our transformation.
Here is Whyte being characteristically moving on friendship:
“Over the course of the years, a close friendship will always reveal the shadow in the other as much as ourselves. To remain friends, we must know the other and their difficulties and even their sins and encourage the best in them. Not through critique, but through addressing the better part of them, thus subtly discouraging what makes them smaller, less generous, less of themselves.
“The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life. A diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in the most average existence.
“But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self. The ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone, and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another. To have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”
Many of us have learned to tolerate heartbreak as a necessary evil. We know that we risk it whenever we create a close connection. We also tend to think of heartbreak in the context of relationships.
David reminds us that possibilities of heartbreak extend to anything as well as anyone we care about. And that we can learn to witness our heartbreak as a ‘close embrace’.
He says “our hope to circumvent heartbreak in adulthood is beautifully and ironically child-like. Heartbreak is as inescapable and inevitable as breathing, a part and parcel of every path, asking for its due in every sincere course an individual takes.
“Realizing its inescapable nature, we can see heartbreak not as the end of the road or the cessation of hope, but as the close embrace as the essence of what we have wanted or are about to lose.”
The human capacity for hiding is epic. And as with denial, we can be a bit judgmental of ourselves for doing it. It seems a bit weak and pathetic to hide out, evading the truth in our relationships and with ourselves.
Whyte offers a different perspective on the condition. He says that we hide away what is the most precious, to protect it from our thoughts.
He says: “What is real is almost always to begin with, hidden, and does not want to be understood by the part of the mind that mistakenly thinks it knows what is happening. What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.”
Many of us fight endlessly with our loneliness. David calls loneliness ‘the doorway to unspecified desire’:
“In the bodily pain of aloneness, is the first step to understanding how far we are from a real friendship, a proper work or a long sought love.
Loneliness is the very state that births the courage to continue calling.”
He adds, beatifically: “Loneliness is the place from which we pay real attention to voices other than our own. Being alone allows us to find the healing power in the other. The shortest line in the briefest email can heal, embolden, welcome, home and enliven the most isolated identity.
Human beings are made to belong. Loneliness is a single malt taste of the very essentiality that makes conscious belonging possible. The doorway is closer than we think. I am alone; therefore I belong.”
We are so eager to name who or what we love, and the way we love. But the habit causes us pain because usually it happens “too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.
“We can never know, in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we deny ourselves a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely, we find ourselves disappointed, and bereaved. And in that grief, may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible, but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations.”
Whyte doesn’t believe that self knowledge is a possible for human beings.
“What we recognise and applaud as honesty and transparency in an individual is actually the humble demeanor of the apprentice. Someone paying extreme attention, to themselves, to others, to life, to the next step, which they may survive or they may not. And, someone who does not have all the answers but who is attempting to learn what they can, about themselves and those with whom they share the journey.
“The real foundation of the self is not in self-knowledge, but in the self forgetfulness that occurs when it meets something other than the self it wanted to know.”
David’s book, Consolations, features 45 more ordinary words, each its own particular doorway into the underlying currents of being human. Check it out when you’re next in the mood to contemplate the inevitable vicissitudes of life.