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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on Love and Resisting the Tyranny of Relationship Labels

“We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it.”

In the prelude to Figuring — a book at the heart of which are the complex, unclassifiable personal relationships animating and haunting historical figures whose public work has shaped our world — I lamented that we mistake our labels and models of things for the things themselves.

Poet and philosopher David Whyte examines these distorting yet necessary containers of concepts in one of the lovely short essays in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — a book I have long cherished.

Under the word “NAMING,” Whyte considers the difficult art of giving love the breathing room to be exactly what it is and not what we hope, expect, or demand it to be by preconception, tightness of heart, or adherence to societal convention.

David Whyte (Photograph: Nicol Ragland)

He writes:

Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, 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 demand 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. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection.

To sit with a shape-shifting, form-breaking love is a maddening endeavor that rattles the baseboards of our being with its earthquakes of uncertainty and ambiguity, its uncontrollable force and direction. Only the rare giants of confidence — giants like Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann, in their beautiful love beyond label — manage to savor the sweetness of such unclassifiable, unnameable love rather than grow embittered at its nonconformity to standard templates of attachment and affection.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Jerome by Heart — an illustrated celebration of love beyond label

The realest love, Whyte suggests, is one we get to know from the inside out — a love that defines itself in the act of loving, rather than contracting and conforming to a pre-definition:

The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to all its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.

While naming may confer dignity upon the named, names and labels are containers. They file concepts and constructs — often messy and always more tessellated, more replete with mystery than their linguistic package — into neat semantic cabinets. But language cups only with loose fingers what it is trying to contain and classify as nuance and complexity drip past the words. We contain in order to control, and whenever we control, we relinquish the beautiful, terrifying mystery of being.

White writes:

We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.

Consolations, which also gave us Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means and the true meaning of friendship, love, and heartbreak, is a revelatory, recalibratory read in its entirety. Complement this particular fragment with Carl Sagan on how to live with the unknown, Kahlil Gibran on the courage to weather the uncertainties of love, and Annie Dillard on living with mystery, then revisit Whyte’s beautiful ode to working together in a divided world.

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Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“We shape our self to fit this world and by the world are shaped again.”

Working Together: Poet and Philosopher David Whyte’s Beautiful Ode to Our Mutuality with the World

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” wrote the great Indian poet and philosopher Tagore — the first non-European awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature — in his 1930 meditation on human nature and the interdependence of existence. Nearly a century later, the English poet, philosopher, and redeemer of meaning David Whyte gave shape to that relational inextricability of our lives in his beautiful poem “Working Together,” found in his collection River Flow: New & Selected Poems (public library).

In this recording from Krista Tippett’s altogether sublime On Being interview with Whyte, he reads this simple, transcendently wakeful poem of supreme relevance to our divided world:

WORKING TOGETHER

We shape our self to fit this world
and by the world are shaped again.
The visible and the invisible working
together in common cause,
to produce the miraculous.
I am thinking of the way the intangible
air passed at speed round a shaped wing
easily holds our weight.
So may we, in this life trust
to those elements we have yet to see or imagine,
and look for the true shape of our own self,
by forming it well to the great
intangibles about us.

Complement with Whyte on anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means, friendship, love, and heartbreak, how we enlarge ourselves by surrendering to the uncontrollable, and when it’s time to end a relationship, then other splendid recordings of poets reading their own work: Adrienne Rich reads “What Kind of Times Are These”; Elizabeth Alexander reads “Praise Song for the Day”; Sylvia Plath reads “Spinster”; Mark Strand reads “The End”; Langston Hughes reads “We Are the American Heartbreak.”

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Poet and Philosopher David Whyte on the Measure of Courage and Crisis as a Clarifying Force of Self-Expansion

“Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.”

“Courage,” Susan Sontag wrote in her timeless and increasingly timely meditation on the power of principled resistance to injustice, “inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.” Courage comes in many guises — the courage to despair, necessary for being an artist; the courage to be vulnerable, that surest yet most difficult path to self-transcendence; courage at knifepoint, where our humanity is revealed; the courage to resist cynicism.

Poet and philosopher David Whyte considers the question of courage in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library) — the ceaselessly quenching well of his wisdom on vulnerability, anger and forgiveness, and the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak.

David Whyte (Nicol Ragland Photography)

Whyte writes:

Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world: to live up to and into the necessities of relationships that often already exist, with things we find we already care deeply about: with a person, a future, a possibility in society, or with an unknown that begs us on and always has begged us on.

With an eye to Albert Camus, that supreme shaman of courage who so staunchly believed that one must “live to the point of tears,” Whyte adds:

Courage is what love looks like when tested by the simple everyday necessities of being alive.

[…]

On the inside we come to know who and what and how we love and what we can do to deepen that love; only from the outside and only by looking back, does it look like courage.

Art by Jean-Michel Basquiat from Life Doesn’t Frighten Me by Maya Angelou

The testing ground for courage, as for love, is often crisis — those trying and troubled times which are precisely when artists must go to work and during which our true strength of character is revealed. Whyte writes:

Crisis is unavoidable. Every human life seems to be drawn eventually, as if by some unspoken parallel, some tidal flow or underground magnetic field, toward the raw, dynamic essentials of its existence, as if everything up to that point had been a preparation for a meeting, for a confrontation in an elemental form with our essential flaw, and with what an individual could until then, only receive stepped down, interpreted or diluted.

This experience … where the touchable rawness of life becomes part of the fabric of the everyday, and a robust luminous vulnerability, becomes shot through with the necessary, imminent and inevitable prospect of loss, has been described for centuries as the dark night of the soul: La noche oscura del alma. But perhaps, this dark night could be more accurately described as the meeting of two immense storm fronts, the squally vulnerable edge between what overwhelms human beings from the inside and what overpowers them from the outside.

[…]

Walking the pilgrim edge between the two, holding them together, is the hardest place to stay, to breathe of both and make a world of both and to be active in their exchange: aware of our need to be needed, our wish to be seen, our constant need for help and succor, but inhabiting a world of luminosity and intensity, subject to the wind and the weather, surrounded by the music of existence, able to be found by the living world and with a wild self-forgetful ability to respond to its call when needed; a rehearsal in fact for the act of dying, a place where inside and outside can reverse and flow with no fixed form.

Whyte’s Consolations remains one of the most beautiful and consolatory books I’ve ever encountered, the kind with which each repeated encounter is always new and always regenerative. Complement this particular portion with Rebecca Solnit on resisting the defeatism of despair and Albert Camus on what it means to be a rebel.

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David Whyte on Vulnerability, Presence, and How We Enlarge Ourselves by Surrendering to the Uncontrollable

“Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”

“Vulnerability is a guardian of integrity,” artist and unheralded philosopher Anne Truitt wrote as she contemplated what sustains the creative spirit. Social scientist Brené Brown conveyed the same sentiment somewhat differently in considering what resilient people have in common: “If we are brave enough often enough, we will fall; this is the physics of vulnerability.” However we may formulate it, the equation holds true — uncomfortably, devastatingly, often intolerably true. Although we may intellectually recognize how essential vulnerability is to our aliveness and every significant expression of it, we remain astonishingly averse to being vulnerable, expending tremendous resources on constructing elaborate and ultimately illusory defenses against this basic condition of being alive.

Why we do that and how we can transcend it is what poet and philosopher David Whyte explores in a portion of his endlessly insightful Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words (public library), which also gave us Whyte’s wisdom on aloneness, the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, and anger, forgiveness, and what maturity really means.

In his recent On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Whyte reads his meditation on vulnerability:

Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state. To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others. More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.

To have a temporary, isolated sense of power over all events and circumstances, is a lovely illusionary privilege and perhaps the prime and most beautifully constructed conceit of being human and especially of being youthfully human, but it is a privilege that must be surrendered with that same youth, with ill health, with accident, with the loss of loved ones who do not share our untouchable powers; powers eventually and most emphatically given up, as we approach our last breath.

The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.

In his beautiful poem “Sweet Darkness,” found in his collection The House of Belonging (public library) — which also gave us “The Journey” — Whyte unravels another aspect of our deepest vulnerability:

SWEET DARKNESS

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.
When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.
It’s time to go into the night
where the dark has eyes
to recognize its own.
It’s time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you
can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will make a home for you tonight.
The night
will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.

In his altogether spectacular conversation with Tippett — my favorite from the show’s fifteen-year archive — Whyte, who grew up bewitched by poetry but became a marine zoologist and naturalist before returning to his first love, reflects on the multiple dimensions of vulnerability, including our dance with control and surrender:

I went back into poetry because I felt like scientific language wasn’t precise enough to describe the experiences that I had in Galapagos. Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention. And in Galapagos, I began to realize that, because I was in deeply attentive states, hour after hour watching animals and birds and landscapes … my identity depended not upon any beliefs I had, inherited beliefs or manufactured beliefs, but my identity actually depended on how much attention I was paying to things that were other than myself. [As] you deepen this intentionality and this attention, you started to broaden and deepen your own sense of presence. And I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you; that whatever you desire of the world will not come to pass exactly as you will like it.

But the other mercy is that whatever the world desires of you will also not come to pass. And what actually occurs is this meeting, this frontier. But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, and wider possible future that’s waiting for them if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.

Complement Whyte’s Consolations, one of the best books of 2015, with Seth Godin’s marvelous children’s book for grownups, V is for Vulnerable, and Dani Shapiro on the creative rewards of being vulnerable.

Subscribe to On Being, one of these favorite podcasts for a fuller life, here.

Portrait of Whyte by Nicol Ragland Photography

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