Living in the World

D. H. Lawrence

When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the
cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like
burnt paper.

(from The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence. © Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994.)

This is a poem about transition, and reorientation of life around a compass that is directed by an interior understanding of ourselves, an understanding that arises out of time spent in nature that allows us to re-see and revise who we are in connection to that understanding. I was especially drawn to the lines that say, “and old things will fall down,/we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like/burnt paper.”

Today I am rereading the piece again, and exploring the words that imply that our egos–the desire to become someone, or somebody–to be important or powerful, is a trap. In our culture and society we are encouraged to rise, compete, gain importance and control of whatever it is we are learning or doing. Lawrence is suggesting, however, it is something very different that makes us feel alive.

He names the forest as a place to rediscover ourselves. A walk in a forest places us in a much bigger life system, a system outside of the orderly and familiar–a place of awe if you will. This forest doesn’t necessarily have to be a literal forest, but any place that gets us out of our self-containers where we allow position, power, and control of knowledge to define us. Lawrence is suggesting that we let go of these so that in that the definitions of ourselves open to redefinition. This allows us to step into a place where things are likely to be unpredictable and not particularly comfortable or hospitable. In taking this step, we will then be able to encounter another self–one that doesn’t make up stories, one that opens to what it really is that makes life meaningful. All the fake versions of who we are, Lawrence suggests, will fall apart in the face of this knowing. We will see the flimsy nature of that self for what it is and laugh at it. Institutions may prop up something of who we are, but our true selves aren’t really found there, according to Lawrence. Our true self is something more complex.

I am reading the poem again, and wondering about how to live in such a way that I am not afraid to go into the forest Lawrence writes of. Some people have come to a new kind of understanding of themselves in relationship to the world through such ventures, and it has reorient them to open to a new way of viewing both themselves and the world. After this, though, remains the difficult work of how to live within that understanding while still being a part of the world’s social-economic structure. This is the scary part because it’s difficult to do.

Gandhi said, “I do not know any religion apart from human activity. It provides a moral basis to all other activities which they would otherwise lack…” There are people who would like to participate more fully in helping others in their communities, who want to do work that doesn’t contribute to environmental problems, to work on a small organic farm, for example, or people who want to write, do art, or help address issues of injustice–these are the interests and skills they want to offer to the world. The economic structure we live in doesn’t make it easy to make a living wage while doing this work, however. Other work must be taken up in order to make one’s way in the world. Bill Moyers cites The Economist in 2008 on his website, ‘“After you adjust for inflation, the wages of the typical American worker—the one at the very middle of the income distribution—have risen less than 1% since 2000. In the previous five years, they rose over 6%.”’ You might want to do the work your heart told you was the right work for you went to the forest, so to speak, but you would have a very difficult time getting by in the world.

In deed, it is difficult for the majority of people to make a decent living in America these days. Why is that, and how can that be changed? Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stilglitz in his recent New York Times article, “Inequality is not Inevitable,” explains, “The true test of an economy is not how much wealth its princes can accumulate in tax havens, but how well off the typical citizen is — even more so in America where our self-image is rooted in our claim to be the great middle-class society. But median incomes are lower than they were a quarter-century ago. Growth has gone to the very, very top, whose share has almost quadrupled since 1980…If we spent more on education, health and infrastructure, we would strengthen our economy, now and in the future.” Change is not the result of a single action within ourselves or in society. It is the result of practice over time, the values we come back to over and over. In our culture, we believe our safety net is whatever it is we can create ourselves through our work and activism. These are certainly needed. We are part of each other, and as Stilglitz indicates, spending more on education, health and infrastructure have a larger strengthening effect on the economy, and I would add, the morale of people as a whole.

So, what does this mean for those of us who have walked out into the forest, felt the cold, and watched institutions curl up like burnt paper? We participate in making the reality we live in. This leaves us with the need to both work on our own self-awareness, and development of wholeness and a peaceful life for those around us. Out of that place of individual practice and understanding regarding what it takes to develop that inner balance we can ask ourselves how it might lead us to act to help create those conditions for others as well.

Stilglitz described in his article the economic reality of how the greed of wealthy few has a negative on society as a whole, and how spending more on educating people can strengthen the economy as a whole. Similarly, there is a spiritual economy. When we strengthen that base of self-awareness and humility through regular practice, we can develop better relationships with ourselves and with those around us. The two are connected. Lawrence has titled his poem “Escape.” Is this how it works–the walk into the forest is a way to escape a false reality, but couldn’t it also be a way to put us in touch with reality so that we can hear the voice that calls us to be and do what we are put on earth for?

I have more listening and learning to do.