Human Being > Human Doing : A Favorite Piece of Spiritual Advice and Mary Oliver

“You Do Not Have to Be Good. / … Tell Me about Despair, Yours, and I Will Tell You Mine.”

In my first year of college, a few simple but profound words poured light into the deep, dark depths of my depression-riddled world. The words came to me thanks to an old friend of my dad’s who also happens to be a leader in a ministry I was beginning to dip my toes in. His name is Rob Crocker, but he goes by “Crock”—“Crock spelled with a K,” he once reminded me, “I am not a low-fashion shoe”—and he has a knack for, quite simply, people. He loves to joke around and tell stories, but he also knows when people need encouragement or the space and courage to just cry.

Sensing the at-times unbearable weight of competitive, performance-driven undergraduate culture—one, which, unfortunately even seeps into college ministries at times—Crock shared with me and a group of freshmen one night at a ministry retreat: “Don’t forget that you are human beings, not human doings. God doesn’t need you to do more for Him; it is enough for you to just be.”

Well, I definitely didn’t forget. I have thought about these words on a weekly basis for three years since. But, I have asked myself since, what do these words really mean? What does it mean to “just be” or to embody the core of what it means to be a human being in light of the Gospel?

Gracefully, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver filled in the gaps of my confusion in the years since Crock spoke those words to me. I first discovered Oliver in my junior year of high school, when my favorite-of-all-time English teacher (perhaps the highest accolade I can afford someone as an English Major and a self-proclaimed lover of all things literature and language) had my class read some of her poetry.

If you’ve read Oliver you’ll likely know that she has a keen eye for the natural world. She describes the quiet happenings in nature that, if we aren’t careful, we just might miss: the grasshopper washing her face, the “hungry mice, cold rabbits, / lean owls hunkering with their lamp-eyes / in the leafless lanes in the needled dark” (“Wolf Moon”). She writes about love and loss, about seeing God’s hands in the elegance of nature, wondering at the mystery of God, and the beauty of a childlike faith. I have read her on and off in college, especially returning to her poetry with zeal after her passing almost exactly a year ago, in January of 2019. So many of her poems have enriched my understanding of God and touched me deeply, but there are a few that have particularly stuck with me, and have shed light on the so-called doing-being (similar to the works-faith) conundrum. One of them is “Wild Geese” (1986) which I have included in full here:

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.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In this exquisite poem, Oliver actually takes Crock’s sentiment a step further. Not only is it not about doing good for God or others, it’s not even about being good: “You do not have to be good,” she says. Well thank goodness, because most days, I can’t seem to figure out how to do that. Fortunately, God doesn’t expect us to “be good” either—nor does he ever instruct us to be. I think what Crock meant by reminding me that I am a human being and not human doing is, and Oliver agrees, I don’t have to “walk on [my] knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert repenting,” or do and say all the right things all the time. I don’t need to burn myself out “doing” for God because God has already done all that needed to be done for all humanity—once and for all—on the cross. Because God did, I have the freedom to just be.

I have the freedom to simply bask in the “sun and the clear pebbles of the rain,” to live out of a deep conviction that I am known and loved, and to share that love with those around me. And the same freedom is yours for the taking, too. Oliver and Crock have reminded me that while doing good is good, my doing will never make me worthier of God. Any genuine and life-giving works or doings will only come after, not before, being assured of who I am, of my being, first. And God says that I am His beloved child, beloved even in—not despite of—my sin (Romans 5:8). The terrible and wonderful truth of the Gospel is that I am utterly incapable of earning God’s love or making Him love me any more—or any less.

In another one of her poems about Jesus’ multiplying the loaves and fishes, “Logos” (2004), Oliver instructs us to “accept the miracle.” But even in the context of this specific Gospel miracle, it is clear that Oliver is telling us to accept more than just the miracle of the loaves and fishes. To return to my former question—what does it mean to embody the core of what it means to be a human being in light of the Gospel?—Oliver has provided me an answer: It is not about doing or even being good; it’s about accepting the miracle.

And what is the miracle? The miracle is that, despite all efforts of the world to tell me otherwise, despite my sin and imperfections, despite my inability to do good things and be good all the time, God says that I am enough, that I am beloved. So I will look up at the “wild geese, high in the clear blue air” and breathe easy. Ah, the miracle of Grace.

Image credit: Travelure (edited)

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16 responses to “Human Being > Human Doing : A Favorite Piece of Spiritual Advice and Mary Oliver”

  1. Charlotte Getz says:

    LOVE this, Sarah! Being instead of doing is a lifelong struggle for me. But this: “God says that I am enough, that I am beloved. So I will look up at the “wild geese, high in the clear blue air” and breathe easy.” Whew. Such good stuff.

    • Sarah Woodard says:

      Thank you so much! I loved reading your recent piece as well- unabashed honesty and some good etymology are always appreciated!

  2. Sarah Condon says:

    Love it ❤️

  3. Josh Retterer says:

    “You do not have to be good.” Amazing piece!

  4. Bryan J. says:

    Excited to have you on board the Mbird party bus Sarah! Great thoughts here. Excited to see where God takes you and your writing over the course of your internship, especially since your writing is so strong out of the gate!

  5. Jodie Berndt says:

    Beautiful piece Sarah! I love your heart (and your writing – way to live out 1 Peter 4:10!)

  6. Jim Woodard says:

    Sarah?? This has touched me more. Than I can ever explain. Thank you. Papa

  7. Susan Freese says:

    I am blown away! God knows exactly what we need and when we need it. I needed this today.
    I want to wrap this in a bow and give to those who so could use this encouragement right now.

    Sarah your writing is a beautiful and powerful gift. I’m looking forward to where it takes you next!

    • Sarah Woodard says:

      Thank you so much Mrs. Freese!! I am so glad it could encourage you, and your words have encouraged me!

  8. Jacque Anthony says:

    Sarah, Susan forwarded this to me today and it was such a blessing to me, just wonderful. You are such a gifted writer and I look forward to reading more of your work!

  9. Kimm says:

    Lovely. Thank you!

  10. Louise Noona says:

    Such a beautiful message—

  11. Jen Saplin says:

    Great post Sarah!! Can’t wait to read more!

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