I wrote this piece because I have long craved to know
1. How can I find a sense of purpose and meaning in my life?
2. How can I get past feeling cut off from ways of being and doing that I especially love?
I share the piece because perhaps you have felt much the way I have been feeling. Maybe you’ve had similar wrong ideas about yourself. The voice in the essay is the wisdom that lives inside each of us but is easy to ignore or not to hear at all.
The World Is Too Much With Us
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.
sonnet first published in 1807, probably written about five years earlier.
For you, Winnie, as for Wordsworth two centuries ago, “The world is too much with” you, so that “Getting and spending” your hours and your energy, you “lay waste” your powers. You find yourself feeling like the hollow center of a whirlwind—lacking purpose and meaning. But you and your life are not hollow. If activities and a crammed calendar, expectations, grief, longings, anxieties, treasured friendships, and even procrastination are flying and flailing around you, these haven’t emerged from a void. They have grown out of both who you are and who you think you ought to be. They come from your genuine joys and your misguided fears, from your desire to embrace possibilities and your efforts to avoid failure.
What you are sensing is not emptiness inside but overcrowding by threatening and warring fears and feelings. The overcrowding is so severe that it restricts meaningful motion and misleads you into thinking that chaos is, instead, a vacuum. So just as you declutter your closet from time to time, you need now to declutter your mind, to recognize what fits and what helps you put your best foot forward. The trick is to separate the rightful denizens of your mind—that which you love—from the interloping thoughts and frustrations that are burying and paralyzing the expression of that love.
And so what do you love? Too often when you speak of something you love, you are expressing loyalty to a past passion and an unmet desire for the renewal of that passion. Such is the case, for example, when you speak of your devotion to writing. Your craving for writing to extricate you from your sense of aimlessness—to give your days meaning—has grown with such vengeance that writing now feels to you more like an attacking cannibal than a life purpose. No wonder you waste time instead of writing.
You have returned, finally, to playing music and are beginning to enjoy it once again because you are focusing on aspects other than excellence as established by some internalized external measure. You’re enjoying the pleasing sounds your flute can make and your sense of connection to the composers, to those making music everywhere, and to the harmony of the Universe. It’s well past time to return to playing with words the way you are now playing with notes, exploring their possibilities, their effect, and the interpretations you would like eventually to share with others.
You are enjoying your flute once again because you have dismissed the flute teacher sitting on your shoulder and telling you that your phrasing is not accurate, that your dynamics are suspect and your tonguing and tempo abysmal. You have heard and read dozens of real and self-proclaimed writing gurus expounding on the qualities your writing should have. Now expel them all, every last guru, and go back to having fun creating something new on the page, to getting fired up over your message, and to caring about encouraging your readers to let their own voices be heard.
Your love of languages is inside of you, too. Languages connect you with people from other cultures, with different ways of seeing the world. But here is another love that you have been damping, in this case fearing your memory may be getting squishy and your more advanced acquaintances scorning the holes in your knowledge. Recall how much fun you had reading La musica del silenzio and memorizing “Che gelida manina.” Such pleasures do not require—and in fact are killed by—awareness of other’s opinions and your own expectations for the impressiveness of your achievements.
Since you were six, you have loved teaching, and you have long seen teaching as your life calling. You fear, however, that you lost the means to live that calling when you let your work take you from the classroom. But remember: you know better than that. Remember that teaching—encouraging others to grow in their knowledge, confidence, creativity, and expression—has many means and nearly infinite settings. Get back to writing with enthusiasm; that’s your biggest classroom now.
What else do you love? You love sharing ideas and experiences with your friends. You love being in Nature, beading, meditating, organizing your apartment, exploring spiritual questions, dancing, doing yoga, traveling (even vicariously), wandering in bookstores—and you could think of much more that you love. So you are not hollow inside; instead, the monstrously exaggerated image you hold for what you must achieve in doing those things you love has exploded them into chaotic orbits around you. Let them settle back down so they can flourish in your mind and spirit, as well as in your everyday doing. Then you will have many, many “glimpses that” will make you “less forlorn.”