What your soft animal body loves

The opening lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” are calling to me today:

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 your soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Oliver has a different idea about animals than most people do. Instead of meaning some untamed, lower-than-human beastie, animal here means your route to finding your sense of belonging in the world, what she calls in the last lines of the poem

your place
in the family of things.

Huh. You mean you don’t have to “be good” to belong? Quite the opposite, she says: instead of the old medieval habit of forcing the body to suffer, you make peace with the body; you follow its longings and loves, and in so doing you realize your kinship with all others on the earth.

Finding kinship: it’s the highest ethical standard in this poem–and, I think, the highest possible ethical standard in an age of ecological crisis. Why? Because so much of the crisis is caused by humans trying to forget our kinship with others.

Much of Western history has been directed toward separating humans out of the pile of animals. I think of the medieval Great Chain of Being, plunking humans at the top of the chain, next to–of course–God. Men were seen as one link higher on the chain than women, one link closer to God and one link farther away from animals. (Ecofeminists have spent a lot of pages explaining the downsides of this hierarchy–to women and the earth as well as to men.)

To bring it closer to home, I think of what wild animal means now. Today’s Google search for the phrase “like wild animals” brings up:

  • a newspaper article on pro football team playing hard
  • a book likening painful emotions to untamed animals
  • a website listing “people who act like wild animals”: terrorists, rapists, and drunken men in bars
  • a report from a Hollywood fan magazine that says Brad and Angelina still “get it on like wild animals”

And that’s just on the first page.

The rap on wild animals isn’t good. They symbolize cutthroat behavior, out-of-control or violent behavior, and they’re used to refer to most anything having to do with sex–any behavior “below” or less-than human (especially “below-the-waist” acts) and anything evil.

The irony is that humans have a greater capacity for evil than do other animals. Marc Bekoff, animal behavior scientist, says that the only two things he’s found that distinguish humans from the rest of the animals are:

  1. We cook our food.
  2. We carry out genocide.

He says that some studies show that animals spend more hours of their day cooperating with others than they do competing with others. (I don’t have that reference yet, sorry.) So much for the association of cutthroat with animal.

And then there’s the study published in Science magazine in 2006 that shows mice are capable of empathy, measured by their showing sensitivity to the pain of cagemates. It seems the “animal body” is capable of kindness.

The “soft animal of your body” that Oliver celebrates is our connection with all other creatures. Living and loving as soft animal bodies: it’s the most ethical thing we can do.