Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Villanelle: Wise Man. Thought vs. Action

What the Wise Man Said

I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.
His hands were leather and his head was white.
He told me that my mind was not my will.

As he spoke he moved farther uphill.
I followed him into the fading light.
I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.

It wasn’t my mind that followed but my will.
He had me there; my will attained that height.
He told me that my mind was not my will.

But if mind must shepherd thought for good or ill,
Does action render mind a parasite?
I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.

“You can’t prepare for change,” he said, “it’s still
“The act that makes the change, not your foresight.”
He told me that my mind was not my will.

I went back down the mountain to fulfill
My dreams or bury them in the grave of night.
I journeyed to a wise man on a hill.
He told me that my mind was not my will.

I got the idea for today’s poem from a soft news segment on a course at Harvard about happiness. I remember what the professor said: “You can’t plan change. You either change or you don’t.” “Shit or get off the pot,” in other words.

I say I want to swim but I don’t. Therefore I am not swimming. And all the arguments and pleading and guilty scenarios in my mind have nothing to do with me getting in the car and driving to the gym. Action talks, bullshit walks. But how does this apply to clinical depression?

In deep depression one must absolutely will oneself out of bed, will oneself to make a bowl of cereal, will oneself to check e-mail (which you are sure will be derogatory and judgmental). In depression the mind tells you you can’t do anything but your will disproves your mind over and over, unless you enter a catatonic state. The problem with will is that if only will is operative, there is no pleasure in attaining a goal, only a mild relief that you have done something. I get no pleasure from putting away the dishes this morning, but I will myself to do it and afterwards regard my work as something.

I believe it was Adler who spoke about the will to power being ascendant in human psychology. Reality is not so easily explained. Consider the soldier in Iraq who fell on a bomb to shield his fellows. One could argue that he willed himself to the power of a glorious memory, but I don’t think so. It’s not like he was a suicide bomber. It was an act of noble charity.

Depressed or not, there are a great many things in life that we must will our way through, from filing taxes to getting a tune-up on the car. Habits make willing easier, however, as in my habit of writing a poem in form each day. But while I am at a task that requires my mind, it is my will that propels me to the end so that I don’t stop and say, “This is too difficult.” If the mind invades a process that way it is best to take a break and not argue with your own mind. Who has ever won an argument with himself? For each side of you that wins, another side loses. It is in action that we choose how to be. Thought may be useful in planning an action, but it can never perform the action.

Food for Thought,


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