Feel Better

Mary Oliver’s Ten Commandments


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 this world.

One understanding of personality, and maybe even personhood itself, is that of an embodied ego structure, as Freud believed it was, not just in our heads, the Ego. And each iteration of the Ego has its own particular way of being conflict with, or of not being able to accept its conscious and/or unconscious reality. Reality intrudes into consciousness, and is met in the human animal by egoic obstructions, fully-integrated selves in many cases, that have formed through nature and nurture to intervene and resist feeling our feelings, thinking our thoughts, seeing our selves in action, or holding ourselves back from taking certain actions. No wonder the phrase “life is a dream” is also a truism for us clever clogs. To a certain extent, it really is a dream, with all of us trapped in our little ego boxes or cages responding in a somewhat deterministic way to other living stimul who or which are doing the same: the pokes, prods and pleasures of being alive in a body run on this heart-based, or instinct based, or head-based Operating System, probably all three. 

What we need is a harmonising antidote to all of this. And is not Mary Oliver exactly that: a harmonising antidote, which is why she gets dispensed in every poetry pharmacy as far I can see? 

Her poems are often concrete examples of not just a kind of ethical framework that we might aspire to in order to achieve or maintain that elusive idea of “the good life’, but equally one that is not going to harsh our mellow: her poems acting as beautiful defence mechanisms if you like, to keep us in a kind of groovy flow state, in a good frame of mind. 

So what might Mary Oliver’s Ten Commandments for Living A Good Life sound like?

  1. Meditate on death and loss, on finitude, as often as possible. 
  2. Approach what scares or hurts you with curiosity and wonder.
  3. Look upon everything as a brotherhood and a sisterhood.
  4. Look upon time as no more than an idea.
  5. Consider eternity as another possibility.
  6. Think of each life as a flower, as common as a field daisy, and as singular.
  7. Think of each name a comfortable music in the mouth tending, as all music does, toward silence.
  8. Think of each body as a lion of courage, and something precious to the earth.
  9. Live your life in pursuit of amazement, fall in love with everyone you meet, and everything that happens to you good or bad.
  10. Don’t try and attain anything, and don’t complain. Get on with the act of living, the gift of embodying life itself while you can.

Aren’t these the gentlest of commandment or imprecations? And yet, gentle as they are, they are somewhat take-charge in their certainty. The equation is simple: if you want to feel that your life is meaningful when death comes like the hungry bear in Autumn, should we then not work really hard on manifesting a love, a kind of holy love towards others, the world and ourselves? And of course you can’t argue with that. It would be like arguing against your own creaturely existence. But I also think that Mary Oliver was or is, for she continues to live in these poems, a point nine in expressing her vision in this way. Nines are good at this kind of thing. Their egoic defence against death, depression, or some other pain or irritant, is to focus on the positive and eliminate, or go to sleep in some way, on the negative. 

Don’t harsh my mellow is how a client related a text from their Point Nine boyfriend. I’m a mellow marshmallow, and will continue to be so, but only if you don’t ever get in the way of me being mellow, doing mellow, seeing mellow. Which is a beautiful, and maybe even mystical Ego space to inhabit.

Other types do it differently. Point Ones keep reality at bay through a kind of perfectionistic striving so as to instantiate a self who is beyond criticism, who can never be condemned or blamed for anything. Twos focus all their energies on a give to get strategy for love and support. Threes achieve ambitious feats in the public eye in order to be validated before and beyond Death. Fours exempt themselves from the rules of the game, and try and make that their selling point. Fives too, without making it their selling point. They don’t give a shit. Sixes get lost in fear and paranoia. Sevens distract with fun stuff, and Eights are all about control.

Of course, all of these personality archtypes are also just our shared human arsenal and arsiness writ large. Which is why the simplicity of Mary Oliver’s How Not To Harsh Your Own and Others Mellow, that Simple Nine Vibe (Jesus was a nine let us not forget) works pretty well for most of us as a reminder on what and where to focus, when  focusing, in a positive psychological way, on the good stuff, the light rather than the shade, knowing, delusion orr not, that this does bring with it infinite rewaards. One of them being joy, the other we might call contentment or happiness.