The Peace of Wild Things
By Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
When I need a recipe, I turn to google, but when I need the perfect phrasing for a sympathy card, I call my mom. When I have a headache, I drink a big glass of water, pop a Tylenol, and if at all possible, squeeze a nap in there. When I’m bored, I read a book, but when I need advice at work, I call a trusted mentor. When I’m cold, I run a bath or sit in the car with the heat blasting, and when I’m frazzled, I make a to-do list.
Like anyone, I have my go-to remedies for the various potholes of life, but some situations don’t have as easy of a solution as a Tylenol or a hot bath. I’m never sure what to do when I ask for feedback on a program and get completely opposite opinions on the best direction forward. It’s hard to know what to say to my friend whose job search leads to one dead end after another while her savings account dips low. I don’t know how to deal with the anger I feel when I read about the slashing of social programs that help the most vulnerable members of our country, one after the other.
At times like these, when I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of a challenge, when a situation seems hopeless, or, in the words of the poet and activist Wendell Berry, “when despair for the world grows in me,” it’s helpful to remember that just because there isn’t a solution doesn’t mean that I’m helpless. Just because I can’t solve a problem doesn’t mean that there’s nothing I can do.
Our impulse when confronted with struggle may be to fix, fix, fix: to make a phone call, buy a new product, say something or take any sort of action. But Berry reminds us that a good starting place when overcome by despair is simply to be; for him, that means going into “the peace of wild things,” where he can “rest in the grace of the world.”
I recently read Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick, and on the first few pages of the novel, the narrator, Ishmael, humorously narrates his choice of move when the going gets tough:
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.
Berry comes into the presence of still water, and Ishmael goes to the sea. These passages call me to ask of myself: what is my sea? Where is my still water? When I’m feeling depressed and irritable, where must I go to right my spirits? This is a question worth considering for all of us.
Reflect: What person, place, object or activity grounds you? Where do you find peace?
Teresa Coda works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church, dabbles in interfaith hospital chaplaincy, and writes about life and spirituality. She has a Masters in Divinity from Harvard Divinity School where she studied theology and pastoral care and counseling. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island with her husband Caleb, her daughter Esther and her Boston terrier Bean.