“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
— Mary Oliver
ou do not have to be good,” wrote Mary Oliver in the first line of her poem “Wild Geese.”
The first time I read this poem four years ago, these words terrified me. They glared up from the page as if to dismiss my entire existence. These seven syllables disputed my established concept of morality; they made my stomach churn. I did have to be good. It really was the only thing that I was good at. I wasn’t particularly great at anything, and being good was all that I had, in all of its satisfactory senses: adequate, nice, fine, upstanding, compliant, good enough. I was good at being home on time, at doing all of my homework, at being conscious of other people’s feelings, at not crying in public, at being quiet when I was supposed to. I was good at being good. So, if according to Mary Oliver, I didn’t have to be good, was I now not being good at the unnecessary requirement of being good? And if I wasn’t good, what was I?
What would happen if I spoke out of turn, if I wasn’t as considerate of others, if I drank too much at a party, if I didn’t get into a top college, or if I (God forbid) spent time doing something I enjoyed rather than doing my homework? Questions such as these spiraled uncontrollably in my OCD-ridden brain the first time I read “Wild Geese.”
I recently decided to re-read the poem to see if Oliver’s words, years later, still evoked a sense of panic. I worried a little that I would still feel guilty about not being good at not being good. Or, as I examined my life through the lens of this poem, I thought that maybe I would find out that I hadn’t been good, that I had subconsciously followed Oliver’s advice and I couldn’t even tell what good was anymore. All of these ideas were terrifying.
Even though I’d like to think that I have somewhat matured since the first time I read the poem four years ago, I know that my words today still cannot do Oliver justice. But in the spirit of her musings that “the world offers itself to to your imagination,” I thought I should at least try.
I felt uneasy as I looked over the poem again. Since that first reading, I had laid on a blanket on Mount Tamalpais with my friends until after the sun had set and was kicked out by a park ranger. Not good. I was taken to casino jail at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas for gambling underage. Not good. I got way too fucked up at multiple parties and other people definitely knew it (read: all Wine Wednesdays, Big Game and especially Cal Day). Definitely not good.
So, if I had been disregarding my old constant personal need to be good, what was I even doing? I was caught in between an intense desire to be good and an overpowering desire to say that Oliver was right and that it was okay that I hadn’t been good. And, as referenced above, maybe I was just being not good on purpose; I was being good at not being good like Oliver pseudo-prescribed. Was I taking the poem too literally? Maybe. But for some reason, this time I leaned more toward her words instead of away, and her instructions put before me felt heavy and light and blue and airborne and long and short and somehow very important to my heart.
I moved past this line and continued to scrutinize the rest of the poem, using all of the methods I had learned from my high school English days and my Rhetoric R1A class (clearly, I must have this whole writing thing figured out, right?). Surprisingly, my beliefs began to shift yet again. Further on, I read, “Meanwhile the world goes on.” Now who would even care if I’m good? I am so tiny and insignificant that maybe it’s a bit presumptuous of me to even consider that my being good or not being good has any sort of bearing on the polar spin of the planet. Is that what she meant?
As a UC Berkeley student and even as a college student in general, I feel perpetually ensnared in a trap of sorts, being pulled in numerous different directions. We are all trying to be good at everything. We want As in all of our classes, we want to be invited to dinners that aren’t at the Clark Kerr dining hall, we want our parents to be proud of us, we want not to be the always-drunk one while simultaneously still being the always-fun one, we want a good group of friends, we want to be picked for that research position and we want someone to love us. At UC Berkeley, is there even a way to be that good at that many things, or is it inevitable that we “do not have to be good”?
But for some reason, this time I leaned more toward her words instead of away, and her instructions put before me felt heavy and light and blue and airborne and long and short and somehow very important to my heart.
But, one line specifically stood out to me this time, beyond just the “good” line.
“You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”
Now, grappling with my own triviality and questioning my convictions about being good, letting the “soft animal” of my body “love what it loves” seemed like a quite foolish way to spend my time. I was now sitting on the floor in my residence hall room, the sounds of my friend video-chatting with her family reverberating through our room (“The dog’s eyelashes have gotten so long!”), and as I thought about this poem, my core understanding of the earth started to unravel: Being good had no value, and I was quite small.
But I tried harder to take it in, following directions in my good way, and I came to wonder what the soft animal of my body even loves. I knew I love my mom, my dad, my friends, my pets, but what else? What was missing? There was an emptiness. Did I love myself only because I was good? But was I even good? Did I love myself at all?
Thinking about it now, maybe that was the most important idea of all — do I love myself? It seems like it should be a given that I do love myself, ranger citations, speeding tickets, Vegas arrest, drunk behavior and all. But was it true? Here, on this dirty residence hall carpet, I do not have to be good, the world goes on, and I just have to let the soft animal of my body love whatever it loves. Maybe loving myself, regardless of if I am good or not, was more important than my goodness or my insignificance, and it could solve any empty feeling and orient the seemingly lost “soft animal.”
After attempting to be good and to not be good, I can say with the shaky confidence of a 19-year-old college freshman that not focusing on what I am being is the only way to be who I truly am. Learning to love myself, as a whole person and not only as a human extension of some elusive good, feels heavy and light and blue and airborne and long and short and somehow very important to my heart. The world goes on, the geese head home, and I feel now as though the soft animal of my body, loving and found, can announce my place in the family of things.
Contact Rebecca Hurwitz at [email protected]