“The Journey”

In a post in 2015, on the topic of  “Books that have changed our lives,” several contributors wrote about the way in which their lives had been changed the most by books whose central message is that we each can and must take responsibility for our own heath and happiness. For women, especially, socialized to respond to others’ needs and demands first (and to think that putting ourselves first is “selfish”), this can be not only news, but a major change in our whole orientation.

Far from being “selfish,” taking responsibility for meeting our own needs (whatever that means to us each, but maybe especially for rest and for nurture) actually does take care of others, even as we are taking care of ourselves. How? First of all, it removes the burden of responsibility  —whether intentional or unintentional— from those we love, for doing something no-one else can do for us anyway (no-one else can receive what we need for us). Secondly (but related), it relieves us of the inevitable resentment we feel when others don’t deliver to us what they can’t give us anyway: our own self-care!

A realization of my own around this came when a wise health practitioner asked me once, “Who is the most important person in your life to take care of?” When I answered “my husband,” she replied “Wrong answer!” Then sh


e asked me, “What would he want your answer to that question to be?” It was a startling question to be asked…and yet I immediately knew the answer: “Me!” Which was the answer I would also want him to give if he were asked the same question: that he, and not I, was his “number one” care-giving priority. After all, if he didn’t take care of himself, how would he be able to take are of me?IMG_2255

Consider the instructions that flight attendants give on what to do in an emergency, which include the instruction to “put the oxygen mask over your own face first,” and only then over a child’s or companion’s face. Which makes immediate sense, right? It’s obvious in a situation like that that unless we first make sure that we ourselves are getting the oxygen we need, we are not even going to be around long enough to take care of others’ needs.

That said, as usual poetry goes to the heart of the matter as only poetry can; in this case, the poem “The Journey” by beloved American poet Mary Oliver. It’s a poem that I have found powerfully challenging and orienting, both, at times in my life (and there have been many!) when taking responsibility for listening and responding to what life and love were calling me both toward and away from was especially urgent for my own physical, mental and spiritual health.

If you, too, recognize yourself in this poem, may you know what you have to do, and begin.


The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
t was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

(from Dreamwork, by Mary Oliver, 1986)

By Donna C Henderson

Donna Henderson lives on the banks of the Deschutes River in Maupin, Oregon, where she also practices psychotherapy, poetry, music, Reiki, and teaches yoga, among other things.

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