You Do Not Have To Be Good. | rejoyce letters, vol. 33

Hi Friend, 

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.

These are the opening words from a poem by Mary Oliver that I often return to.

I remember the first time I read the first line: "You do not have to be good." The words shot through me, like lightning, because it felt contradictory to everything I've ever been told. And it also felt...True.

It seems to me one of the greatest pressures placed on me as a child was the need to be good. Now, I can only speak for me, so I don't mean to paint with broad strokes. But I will say, this pressure seemed not to stem from a select few adults, but from nearly every adult I ever interacted with...maybe for the first 15 years of my life. So it's not like I'm making the claim, "And this pressure to be good all came down to my crazy Aunt Petunia in Idaho." I mean, to me, this pressure was everywhere. It was the air I breathed.

I fundamentally do not believe in blaming. Blaming isn't healing. Rumi says:

"The fault is in the one who blames.

Spirit sees nothing to criticize."

So, I'm not blaming any of the adults who shaped my worldview. I believe they were all doing the best they could in the moments they were in. (I'm not just regurgitating that line—I sincerely believe it.)

And yet, I've reached the point in my life where I'm deconstructing some beliefs I've long held as "facts"—so let's deconstruct the messages that could be sent when an adult repeatedly tells a child: "You need to be a good kid."

In a broad sense, the adult is suggesting there are two distinct groups of children in the world: Good kids and Bad kids.

That—in and of itself—is a really big claim to make. Of course, it's constantly implied in our culture. Bad kids get coal in their stockings, bad kids go to time out, bad kids go to detention, bad kids go to juvenile delinquent centers, bad kids go to jail.

So, we are learning—really, really young—that the world is a divided place. That there are two factions: the good and the bad. 

And, as a small child, I naturally drew this conclusion: I need to do everything I can to NOT be bad. I need to do everything I can to BE GOOD.

Which means I was not only believing the idea that the world was split between good and bad, I was also believing these premises:

a.) Whether I am good or bad is up to me.

b.) I could easily become bad if I mess up.

c.) If I am good, I will get everything I want.

Today, I consider all three of those beliefs total lies. Utter fallacies. 

I realize this might be a controversial stance, but it's what I fully believe. The first fallacy is judgmental and egotistical, the second is propagating a fear-based worldview, and the third—trust me!—doesn't work.

I was planning on dissecting each fallacy in detail, but instead I'm going to keep things simpler this week and ask:

How could you—yes, you, specifically, you—ever "be bad"? It's completely senseless. You are alive. You are a breathing being. You are a soft animal in a body who loves.

You are not bad, you never could be. Nothing you could do could cause you to be bad. 

If you think you're the exception—and don't we all, sometimes?—and you want to list the dozens of reasons why you are bad, you can if you'd like, send them to me, I'll read them, but nothing you could say could convince me of your badness. You couldn't "be bad" if you tried; just like you couldn't "be good."

Consider this: If you're like me, you tried to "be good" your whole life...and all that trying left you with was nothing but an empty feeling of restlessness. A feeling that you'd been deceived. And maybe (if you're a lot like me) a feeling of righteous resentment toward all those other people who, let's be real, weren't trying to be good nearly as hard as you were. And maybe, you start blaming those people. Because, you did everything right, you were good, and your life still doesn't look how you want it to, so it can't be your fault, you followed the rules, so it must be THEM those BAD PEOPLE you learned about as a child, those are the people responsible for why your life isn't how you want it, so you descend into the state of the self-righteous victim. You say: I don't know what's happening, but God damn it, I'M GOOD. I'M NOT THE PROBLEM. And this state of Self-righteous Victimhood is a state you could stay in for years. (I did.)

But here's the thing: What if you felt like you were deceived because you were deceived? What if the rules you were following from childhood were the problem, not the people in your life?

What if you don't have to try?

You just have to be.

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.

with Love and with Light,


p.s. The Mary Oliver poem is called Wild Geese. One of my favorite books of all time is Mary Oliver's collection of essays calledUpstream