The World Is Too Much with Us
My freshman year in college, my boyfriend gave me a birthday-Valentine’s Day gift that I still have. David M. was my first (you know, that first). But other than that singular distinction, our relationship was nothing remarkable and most memories of it faded from my mind years ago.
Except for the gifts he gave me back in 1970. My birthday is the day before Valentine’s Day and wise boyfriends have always made a great show of special, thoughtful presents to celebrate both events.
David showed up in my dorm, fresh from the Hallmark store, with a small ceramic vase of dried flowers and a Hallmark Editions poetry book, Truth is Beauty: Best-Loved Romantic Poems of Shelley, Keats, Byron, Wordsworth, and others. I still have my first edition copy ©1967.
Although it would not collect huge sums of money in resale—it’s barely valued at twice the original cover price of $2.50 today on Ebay or Thrift Books—the poetry inside provides much value to me. I think it is a great shame that more people don’t live their lives by the information gleaned from poets.
Indeed, William Carlos Williams says it best:
It is difficult to get the news from poems
Yet men die miserably every day
Of what is found there.
Romanticism, a literary movement spanning 1790–1850, was characterized by a celebration of nature and the common man, a focus on individualism and spirituality, and an idealization of women.
No wonder I’m drawn to the Romance writers.
The movement can be seen as a reaction to the huge changes in society that occurred during those years, including the revolutions in France and the United States. Yet, the times and the literary works could not be more relevant today.
One of my favorites from my birthday volume was a poem by William Wordsworth:
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!
The sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathering 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 wreathed horn.
I have to say these words and this sentiment have come to haunt me loud and clear in past weeks. If you’ve read my last two posts, you know I’m taking steps toward distancing myself from what I see as a patriarchal society that does not reflect or respect my values. But that doesn’t mean I’m retreating or burying my head in the sand. Quite the opposite.
In fact, I’m taking action to be consistent with the whisperings of my soul more of the time, acting in ways that authentically mirror my beliefs in everything I do—expressing myself in word and deed. What good will it do if I’m only exhibiting my preferred behavior part-time?
But of course, radical change doesn’t happen overnight. Small steps, taken with intention, become habits. Over time, transformation happens and one day I will look back to see how far I’ve come. I have already lived long enough to know this much is true.
I didn’t just start two weeks ago with the cancellation of a newspaper subscription and taking steps to digitally detox from soul-poisoning social media. I can look back way past my journals of the last 20 years to my childhood when I first started to pretend to be something and someone I wasn’t.
I can remember hiding who I was to fit in with expectations of society transmitted to me via my family and school experiences. I learned to scan my surroundings for the acceptable vibe and fashion my behavior to match rather than risk the disapproval of authorities or ridicule of my peers.
Although those coping mechanisms may have served to protect me in the early years, the result of a lifetime of repressing my true self didn’t serve me in the long run. My midlife crisis landed in divorce and financial setbacks.
As I pressed on to find social circles that supported my values and accepted me for my true self, I began to find relief from the ever-present feeling that there was something more to life that I was supposed to be experiencing. I met and married a man who loved me for my quirks and my talents. Together we went on a search for the lifestyle or philosophy that supported our intrinsic need for individual expression.
I’m certainly not the only person who has experienced these kinds of circumstances. We are a society of chronically ill people, people on mood-altering medications, and more than a few personality disorders. Divorce and suicide rates are at an all-time high.
When you push down your own feelings, you invite the feelings of others in. When those foreign feelings are incongruent with your own, things start to go wrong. You get sick. You get angry. You show inappropriate emotion or behavior.
If you don’t recognize what’s going on, you have to adapt again, and find some way to feel better. For many, that means a total submission of self to become more like what you see around you. Fitting in at all costs means adopting the behaviors you have come to know as preferred or at least widely accepted with loud and vocal assertions to support the status quo. You drown yourself out.
But overriding your natural programming ultimately leads to dulling your senses, your windows to the real world. And when you’re without senses, you’re senseless. And that doesn’t feel good at the heart level, below your numbed-out exterior.
For me, the only solution is to replace the things that don’t feel good with things that do. To be more like the Romantics and fill my sense of self with the beauty of nature, the joy of doing the things that light me up, and the satisfaction of being with others who embrace the idea that they’re here to experience life as a timeline filled with contrast. To celebrate the high points and learn from the low times.
It is a process, unlearning a lifetime of habits. But it can be accomplished—one “unsubscribe” and one “release” at a time. And indeed, one day you will look back and smile at the evolution of the authentic you.
Image: Coney Island Neptune ©Gemignani. Prints available here.
Text ©Shelley Lieber
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