How Then Shall I Live?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014 - 5:15am
Photo by Sergey Norin

How Then Shall I Live?

It's hard to decide which Mary Oliver poem is my favorite. There are so many! But this one's a strong candidate.

Every wisdom tradition I know urges us to cultivate active awareness of our mortality — because keeping that simple reality before our eyes enhances our appreciation of life, even when things get tough. It also increases the odds that we will come to some new resolve about how we want to live.

For example, how might things change if more of us regarded every person as "a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth"? Closer to home, what might happen for me and others if I myself held everyone I met in such respectful regard?

As you read this poem, ask yourself a simple question and take some time to ponder it: "How, then, shall I live?"

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don't want to end up simply having visited the world.

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Parker J. Palmer

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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I realized quite a while ago: it seems to me you a world where a significant portion of humanity actually thought about how special it is to be here and alive...and this, given that all the world's religions promise so much of that--and deliver so little! What kind of things would they be doing, be concerned with then? I guess my conclusion would be that it would be just as it is: They would be exploring the universe--in small and large, and in aesthetic and transcendent--'meaning'--aspects, playing games, building things, watching sunsets... They would just be spending so much more time and effort getting to know themselves and each other and in looking at the possibilities and so much less in holding each other back? --I guess I'd be trying to say the same thing Parker J. Palmer is, he in such a better way: "(especially when you get to the end of it) just think about such an option (while you still can)"?

Thank you, again, Parker, for posting your always engaging and enlightening words and sharing those words of others that inspire you. I don't know what might happen, but holding myself and others in the careful and compassionate regard described by Oliver -- all of us, lions of courage -- is my new resolve.

I shall have lived each day saying to the day, to all within that day, how much it has meant, to have known you, to have met you, knowing that when the door closes, I will not regret, never having told you, because I know mourning comes to us all, and that this little bluebird in my hand, my happiness, is dependent on all of you, being my sun, my everything.

This is most beautiful. Thank you for your tender-hearted life.

How Then Shall I Live? This question is in the singular I. Ezekiel an Old Testament Prophet also asked, "How should we then live" (Ezekiel 33:10). This question is the plural we. In either case, it is a pertinent question that everyone must answer. If an individual answered it correctly then we can collectively know how to live because there is interdependency. It seems to me that the later has a presupposition about the way to live. However, there are more questions that could be asked such as: Do I live for myself? Is there a right way and a wrong way to live? It is not possible to turn back the clock, hence we keep on going and sometimes with smiles and frowns on our faces. We also have moments of sadness, regret, and pride after a long life dream has been accomplished. However, the greatest enemy of man is death. Everybody consciously or unconsciously thinks about what's on the other side of the grave. Once your breathe is gone, you slipped into eternity. It true that "the eye sees not itself, but by relcection, by some other things." Therefore to know something about eternity and how to live, it has to be from God's perspective. In the sight of God every individual is sinful and wicked! However, He has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked." Therefore, the answer to the above question is, let the wicked turn from his sinful and wicked ways and turn unto the Lord. This is how we should live!

This pure beauy as I approach my final years I leave much unseen and much undone but I want to see what's behind that door.


Thank you for posting this Mary Oliver poem. I am a big fan of hers too, and always love her analogies and metaphors about our connections, both physically and spiritually to nature. She beautifully mixes philosophy, spirituality and art into a delicious serving that always leaves me musing. Such a wonderful gift she has, and we are lucky to have her.
I don't agree with the premise that keeping an "active awareness of our mortality" is necessarily a healthy way to help guide our everyday living, at least not for me. I'm more inclined to plug into the moment and enjoy the wonder of each and every thing we see, hear, or otherwise experience. I guess this is informed by my own belief that this is not the only life we have, and not our only chance to achieve what we desire, if we're lucky enough to have a vision of such. I'm afraid that having an active awareness of our mortality might result in trading the enjoyment of living every day for achieving something before it's too late.
I myself am a musician, and though I write lyrics for my music it doesn't seem that I can very easily combine lyrics with music, and the playing of music comes easily for me. The point here is that I'm thinking that this lifetime is largely about becoming a musical artist, perhaps without the currently popular convention of music and lyrics. And the associated concept is that in future/alternate lives, that may come more easily, if it's of interest to me at all. So you see, I guess I have a much longer vision of achievement that stretches past this particular life. I'm not too concerned with trying so hard to achieve something as soon as possible with an active awareness of mortality. I feel like I will achieve something here, while enjoying what this life has to offer, and possibly continue my journey if I retain a passion and desire for a particular goal.
Anyway, my two cents...and nearly worth it! Thanks again for posting Mary Oliver's poem and your musings on what you've gleaned from it. I hope your message resonates and inspires others to a path that leads to enjoyment in life.

I, too, find Mary Oliver's poetry meaningful. I recently created some music with pan flutes to go with Mary Oliver's thoughts on dying in her book, West Wind. It's now on You Tube. 1. Come With Me: Pan Flutes - YouTube -- or this:

I used the last two stanzas and end line of Mary Oliver's poem as a conclusion to my graduation speech to the class of 2014 of Poolesville High School. My speech was about the changes they would experience, how their responses to events in their lives were key to their development and how they could make change in another's life through sincere appreciation and grace. I'm happy to say the speech was well received, and I really thought Mary Oliver's poem was a wonderful summation of my thoughts for the class.

My mother died in December with all of her faculties intact. Entirely out of character, several hours before she died, quite unexpectedly, she started talking about needing help with the door, asking her parents for help with the door, asking other people for help. She died about an hour after the visiting nurse came and tested her heart and her blood oxygen levels, saying both were good, her blood oxygen excellent. My mother, again, entirely out of character, said she didn't care that there was something wrong with her instruments. As I was arguing with her doctor, saying that she didn't want to take benzodiazapine drugs for the anxiety that the nurse who reported she was agitated, my sister called out that she had collapsed. She died of a massive heart attack within the hour.

The door in this poem, the doors I've read about other people on the verge of death, have a totally different meaning for me now.

I shal live by stopping more than going. Here's what I wrote about that recently in a poem.

Paco, my friend’s smooth
small black dog
lies curled
like a comma
around my belly
and, following the purpose
of a comma,
I rest a moment

from exclamations or
questions or
completion of
what only needs a

I don't recall ever being particularly afraid of my death. Of course it was disconcerting to lose my grandmothers when I was young, but I was more afraid of aging than actual death. This poem is wonderful, particularly the last line about not wanting to have simply visited this world. As the quote goes "life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death." The teachings I have received at Buddhist sessions have emphasized the impermanance of everything and I pray to appreciate and give as much as I can.