Li-Young Lee, “One Heart”

In this house divided—yeah, I’ll indulge the overdramatic—what’s left of what one might call a heart is pretty much divided too. The desire to do better ought to put failure to use, continually refining the human. Instead, “being better” collapses into “fear of failure.” It’s not hard to see why. When I was wading last week through TV clips for my students, looking for examples of admirable people making everyday mistakes, I mostly searched in vain (Lt. Worf was a very happy exception–on being an outsider, dating).

Heroes can be rude or angry or gossipy, not just making errors of judgment about difficult matters, but lacking basic self-awareness, self-control, or even respect for others. I wasn’t looking to excuse these things, but rather to show anything worth doing is worth failing at—you’re not going to be the person you want to be immediately. “Fear of failure” doesn’t only create despondency, but complacency and—worst of all worlds—unrelenting, myopic self-justification. Near perfect images of worthy people make them and what they stand for seem inaccessible.

I’d like to make Li-Young Lee’s “One Heart” my mantra. Memorize it, sing its imperative continually:

One Heart (from poetrysociety.org; h/t @ArianeBeeston)
Li-Young Lee

Look at the birds. Even flying
is born

out of nothing. The first sky
is inside you, open

at either end of day.
The work of wings

was always freedom, fastening
one heart to every falling thing.

Look at the birds: look away from the self for a moment, put self-pity aside. Realize that even flying is born out of nothing. Even flying doesn’t emerge from having something, a recognized set of skills or talents, a sense of accomplishment. It comes from an absence, a lack. Augustine held that evil was a privation, something absent from the good.

Here, realize that possibility is not wrapped in brightness and beauty. It not only implies but depends on failures. Yet the first sky is inside you, open at either end of day. Possibility is when you choose to fly, and it can work with attitudes far from perfect. Only one thing matters, in truth: the attempt to create one heart, to be dedicated, to choose freedom. The work of wings was always freedom, fastening one heart to every falling thing.

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