Few things limit us more profoundly than our own beliefs about what we deserve, and few things liberate us more powerfully than daring to broaden our locus of possibility and self-permission for happiness. The stories we tell ourselves about what we are worthy or unworthy of — from the small luxuries of naps and watermelon to the grandest luxury of a passionate, creative calling or a giant and possible love — are the stories that shape our lives. Bruce Lee knew this when he admonished that “you will never get any more out of life than you expect,” James Baldwin knew it when he criticized that “you’ve got to tell the world how to treat you [because] if the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” Viktor Frankl embodied this in his impassioned insistence on saying “yes” to life.
The more vulnerable-making the endeavor, the more reflexive the limitation and the more redemptive the liberation. That complex, delicate, triumphal pivot from self-limitation to self-liberation in the most vulnerable-making of human undertakings — love — is what poet and philosopher David Whyte, who thinks deeply about these questions of courage and love, maps out in his stunning poem “The Truelove,” found in his book The Sea in You: Twenty Poems of Requited and Unrequited Love (public library) and read here, by David’s kind assent to my invitation, in his sonorous Irish-tinted English voice, in his singular style of echoing lines to let them reverberate more richly:
by David Whyte
There is a faith in loving fiercely the one who is rightfully yours, especially if you have waited years and significantly if part of you never believed you could deserve this loved and beckoning hand held out to you this way. I am thinking of faith now and the testaments of loneliness and what we feel worthy of in this world.
Years ago in the Hebrides, I remembered an old man who walked every morning on the grey stones to the shore of baying seals, who would press his hat to his chest in the blustering salt wind and say his prayer to the turbulent Jesus hidden in the water,
and I think of the story of the storm and everyone waking and seeing the distant yet familiar figure far across the water calling to them
and how we are all preparing for that abrupt waking, and that calling and that moment we have to say yes, except it will not come so grandly so Biblically but more subtly and intimately in the face of the one you know you have to love
so that when we finally step out of the boat toward them, we find everything holds us, and everything confirms our courage, and if you wanted to drown, you could, but you don’t because finally, after all this struggle and all these years you simply don’t want to any more you’ve simply had enough of drowning\, and you want to live, and you want to love, and you will walk across any territory and any darkness however fluid and however dangerous to take the one hand you know belongs in yours.
“The Truelove” appears in the short, splendid course of poem-anchored contemplative practices David guides for neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris’s Waking Up meditation toolkit, in which he reads each poem, offers an intimate tour of the landscape of experience from which it arose and reflects on the broader existential quickenings it invites.
Couple this generous gift of a poem with “Sometimes” — David’s perspectival poem about living into the questions of our becoming, also part of Waking Up — then revisit the Noble-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska on lavish love and James Baldwin, who believed that poet is “the only people who know the truth about us” — on love and the illusion of choice.