You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
I knew, as the daughter of a Helen Reddy-roaring, 1970s hippie, not to go chasing love in the arms of another.
It comes from you first, Mum would say. You can stand in the mirror and say it, if you want.
I didn’t want. I would run my fingers over the spines of the Louise L Hay and Stephen R Covey books on Mum’s shelf and wonder if a middle initial was a prerequisite to confidence. It seemed like a stupid idea, then, to just love yourself. How was anyone supposed to get better with that kind of attitude? I had a lot of shit to fix before I could get on with that sort of thing. And actually, once I had six-pack abs, that would probably come naturally.
So I left the mantras on Mum’s shelf, somewhere next to her broken reading lamp. I did like the idea, though, of not building a life on a foundation that can be snatched away. It comes from you first. That made sense in a way that talking to a mirror didn’t, and so I set about trying to earn my own respect.
Where I got my idea of what an accomplished life looks like, I’m not quite sure — it was probably a mix of songs and Tamora Pierce novels and National Geographic snapshots. Either way, it ended up being a very odd grab bag of goals. Could I build a life somewhere entirely new? Now do it again. Write enough to hold up the apartment walls around me, keep the lights on? Earn a degree, too — something sciencey enough to prove you’re sciencey enough, you artsy shit. A half marathon. Veganism. Show enough vulnerability to fall in love, but be willing to break your own heart in order to prove you can get back up again.
In a way, it sort of worked. There is a resiliency, a fearlessness, that comes from launching yourself headfirst into the things that scare you, and then doing them again and again in order to stop fearing them so much. A move might never scare me again, and that brings new freedoms with it. Once you stop fearing loneliness, a calm joy comes from solitude. There’s no heartbreak we aren’t flexible enough to absorb, and there are walls that come down once you know that.
It could take years and years to learn those things, accidentally, as life slowly deposits them at your doorstep like a cat with dead mouse — or you could just bludgeon your way through these life lessons like a self-destructive bat of out of hell. In a way, surprisingly, 12-year-old Kenza almost got it right.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
The thing is, however, that these self-imposed life lessons still didn’t bring me that self-respect I’d set out to gain in the first place. Not truly, not deeply. Certainly not permanently. And because that was something I saw as earned, there was always some final barrier in the way to the life I wanted. If I could just. Then maybe.
I was biking home on a crisp Sunday night one summer, though, having pulled an Irish goodbye on friends at the beach, and it was one of those glorious times when the night sky has swept everyone off the streets and into their beds at home. Everything was peaceful: the bike lane stretching along the waterfront, the glow of traffic lights on an empty street, the hushed whisper of tires on pavement. I had music in one ear, familiar songs from familiar pasts carrying me home.
The whole city was mine. And maybe that’s why — as my mind turned and turned itself and settled, in its familiar way, onto the things I felt I still needed to change — those last five pounds, anxiety, a better job — it felt like something cracked. There came a resounding NO, and the word was so unfamiliar that it startled me into listening.
Love isn’t earned. Not from yourself and not from anyone else. It’s not contingent on any one thing, and it certainly doesn’t fail you.
You’re part of a living, breathing ecosystem of things. You’re from the same wilderness that brings us wildflowers and the sound of crickets, the night sky, music and your favourite humans. Love might not come from the mantras of gurus with middle initials — but neither do you ever earn it, like a transaction, from a degree or a race medal or a byline. It’s not a prize at the end of the road. It’s the road itself, and if you can listen to it, it’ll carry you home.
The stars don’t perform any tricks. The sun carries on with its routine explosions. Gnarled trees are simply finding their way to the light, and so are we. Once you accept your place in the family of things, you can stop trying to earn it — and realize it’s belonged to you all along.
I’m not sure if you can rush that realization, like I tried to do with life lessons. Maybe Louise L Hay and Stephen R Covey really did have some shortcuts within the pages of those uncracked books, but I still haven’t read them. I still don’t talk to the mirror.
But I do know that when you let yourself exist as freely as all the things you love, it breaks away some unseen boundary: life stops being about proving or earning and becomes, instead, about experiencing and exploring. And while that realization might lead you down the same path, your steps are different: they no longer feel like permanent proof you can point to; instead, they’re lighthearted, curious, playful. No matter how you show up, you belong to the world.
And that, you’ll find, really does change everything.
Find the rest of Mary Oliver’s poem, Wild Geese, here.