“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?” asks the poet Mary Oliver.
This line has stuck with me since I first read it; I think it was on a greeting card from a friend. It’s so evocative, suggesting a life of greatness, heroism, nobility. In modern terms, that means life choices, career moves, relationship stages, and the like.
But the other day I read Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” to see the quote in its context, and I discovered a poem about something very different. It is not about the Big Questions. Or rather, it raises the Big Questions but then presents us with a paradox: The Big Questions are best answered by turning to the little things. Oliver angles her lens on
this grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
This process of observation leads her to a little epiphany: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.”
Facing the Big Questions can lead to a kind of paralysis; it’s often much easier to see our inadequacies than to see our strengths, to see the great deal we don’t know rather than to see the little we do. But, says Oliver, if we pay attention to the things that surround us and fill our lives, we can find ourselves suddenly discovering the answers to those Big Questions without even realizing it.
This poem speaks to some of the struggles we face as people living in the modern, digital, technology-saturated world. With a million distractions at our fingertips, it is a challenge to dedicate ourselves to the activity at hand. Unlike Mary Oliver, we don’t know how to pay attention. Headphones in, eyes downcast, we are often oblivious to the person next to us on the metro, to the coffee shop we’re working in, to the streets we’re walking on. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, some four hundred years before Oliver observed her grasshopper. But modern-age man, for all his social media, certainly lives likes one.
But we can develop this habit of attention. It’s a difficult task, but here are few ways to get started.
01. Read more poems.
Poems are dense and crafted: words, images, syntax, spacing—all are done with deliberation and care. Reading a poem is more demanding than reading a short story or novel, but the attention you invest produces a hundredfold. If you are intimidated by poetry—I know I have been!—check out this article from The Atlantic, which offers some helpful strategies.
This is something different from journaling. Journaling can be cripplingly self-aware: Often, when we write, we imagine an audience, and this can lead us to edit out ideas and emotions we’d prefer not to reveal to someone else. Freewriting is, as the name suggests, free. It’s something you do for your own sake. Peter Elbow, a writing theorist and teacher, promotes this as a way to discover your honest and independent thoughts on an issue. I’ve found it to be most helpful when I forbid even myself to read over what I have written. When I do that, I’m truly freewriting, and in that freedom I find clarity about aspects of life I might otherwise miss.
03. Schedule social media usage.
If you are like me, social media saturates most hours of the day, distracting you from the people, tasks, places in front of you. At different times in the year, I’ve restricted my social media use to particular times of the day, to great effect. I feel more present and more peaceful—and I get more enjoyment out of the time I do spend on social media because it’s something I’m choosing as a means to relaxation. I recommend starting by restricting use of one app rather than the whole kit and caboodle. I know I’m much more likely to succeed with one than with several, and that first success will fuel me into expanding this to other media over time. (I know that phone games can be a similar time waster. I don’t allow myself to have any at all, but if you find yourself distracted by games, I think the same technique could help to reshape how you use them.)
04. Talk to a stranger.
Even if it’s just a simple “Hey” as you pass in the street, or a pleasant commonplace while you wait in the grocery line, these kinds of exchanges always make me more committed to the present moment and help me see the simple pleasures of the world around me.
Oliver’s poem offers a paradoxical answer to the large questions of life: Look, she says, to the small things. Live life with care. Be present to the people—friends and strangers—who are actually present. Pay attention—because if you do, you’ll find yourself better able to answer the question that faces all of us, and that Mary Oliver expressed in such a compelling form: “What is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”