Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

Wednesday, July 9, 2014 - 5:26 am

Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.”

One of the many things I love about Mary Oliver’s poetry is that she faces squarely into the complexity of our lives on “this side” of things — and then points us toward the simplicity that lies on the other side of our confusions and illusions.
Here’s a beautiful poem in which she says that she is “so distant from the hope of myself” as she wants to be — me too! — but then listens to the trees explain why “It’s simple.”
So I’m going to go out and listen to the trees for a while this afternoon.

When I Am Among the Trees
from Mary Oliver’s Thirst: Poems

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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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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