American poet Mary Oliver begins her poem Wild Geese thusly:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Every so often, I find myself meditating on these lines. They represent a shift in my consciousness, a sea change in my faith and worldview. These words have been the theme of my growing up; of moving from boy to man.
Like many Christians, I was taught a good dog/bad dog view of myself and others. I go to church on Sunday? Good dog. I read my Bible daily? Good dog. I turn out to like boys? Bad dog. I watch porn? Bad dog. I become compulsive, cut myself, spiral into a self destructive mess? Bad dog. I find myself heartbroken after a failed relationship and start sleeping with men? Very bad dog. That which is only human becomes inhuman and repugnant; that which is understandable and bodily – be it normal, like sex, or compulsive, like addiction – is villainized, something that must be amputated from our being.
This is a punitive system, and it creates a huge amount of shame. The scary thing about shame is how it spirals and compounds, and before you know it, it’s a thunderous avalanche, burying you beneath its rubble. Shame begets shame, and shame hinders wholeness and relationship. The more I felt like a bad dog, the more I couldn’t stop my compulsive behaviors.
But in this new season of my life, good/bad, righteous/sinful as punitive systems are slowly fading out. Now, they are being replaced with healthy/unhealthy, connected/disconnected, whole/broken.
As I’ve practiced yoga, prayed, gone to the 12 Steps, I’ve learned that the Good Dog/Bad Dog mentality of my youth was a roadblock to ever becoming whole. When I am a Bad Dog, I am too ashamed to fix anything, too terrified of being bad, or too weary to keep trying to fix it. When I am in a punitive moral mindset, the Bad Dog is my only identity, and I find little use resisting it. I become a Dr. Jekyll, a slave to my baser self. Like a convict who goes to prison only to be released as a more violent man, I enter shame only to come out more ashamed, more likely to give up in the face of shame.
Slowly, a better way has emerged: I do not have to be good, I need only be present and honest to my interior life. I need only see fully and fearlessly, unashamed. I need only examine my cracks and shortcomings with honesty and compassion, and it is only there, bathed in the compassionate light of awareness, that they are permitted to transform into something more whole. Rather than punishment, I now experience relationship – with my brokenness, with my fears, and my shame. I simply let the soft animal of my body want what it wants – I don’t need to judge it, or beat it, or ridicule it.
As I’ve practiced this curiosity and compassion towards myself, I can’t help but feel that this is what the story of Christ represents. He doesn’t offer us punishment, He offers us relationship. He doesn’t offer us ruthless shame, but understanding, empathy, and grace. He doesn’t tell us to earn our worth, but that we already have worth in him. It was my Christian faith that led me down the rabbithole of shame, but I am now being led to a new faith – a faith with wholeness, relationship, and curiosity as its center.
I now see more clearly than ever that compassion is the beginning of all things – growth, kindness, and wholeness. Without the security compassion provides us to look without flinching into our innermost selves and accept all that we see, we will never be able to transform. This world is starved for compassion, and with it, to be seen. Perhaps we start to heal the world by fearlessly choosing to see ourselves.