The peace of wild things and the curse of imagination

I’m thinking tonight about a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Peace of Wild Things.” He writes how “When despair for the world grows in me” he goes into nature, where “I come into the peace of wild things / who do not tax their lives with forethought / of grief.” Brilliant line. Taxing our lives with forethought of grief is exactly what we do. Why do we do this to ourselves? Because of imagination.

Imagination is perhaps the greatest ability we have. It’s an important part of what makes us human. It allows us to invent, to empathize, to improve our lives in countless ways. It allows us to invent make-believe worlds that are better than the one we live in, worlds of peace and justice, or worlds in which we are reunited with lost loved ones at death. Imagination can spur us to action and invention, or it can distract us with illusions.

And it can terrify and tax us. How much energy do we spend on bad things that we only imagine might happen, or on things that will happen sooner or later but which we can’t prevent no matter how much we worry about them?

Imagination is how we torment ourselves, and it’s why we can’t help but torment ourselves.

But would you give it up if you could? — just live in the moment like the wild animals, acting and reacting, but never wondering about things that are not, but which might be, if only?

Neither would I.

9 thoughts on “The peace of wild things and the curse of imagination

  1. I’m a mechanical atheist and I know that much of what I do was programmed into my brain before I drew first breath. Without the chemical coding that informs me who I am, I could not empathize and wonder at the universe’s great indifference to the affairs of apes. While we may not live moment by moment, our moment is only about 80 years long. I live in ‘that moment’ with gratitude and contentment. Not simply because I can experience that moment, but because I can imagine what it might otherwise have been if I could not do so. Cogito ergo sum. I am. What does not kill me will make me stronger, and I will ride as many of the rides in this amusement park that I can, not to be able to say I did, but simply because I can. If this moment be but a dream, then I will suck the marrow from it and revel in the splendor of every glorious or gory detail of it before the sandman’s dust wears thin of its magic.

      • For some reason I’m feeling poetic tonight.
        Some feel my sayings are not quite right.
        I walk not in the darkness, nor live in the light.
        I will not go quietly into that good night.

      • I think there’s a certain zest for life that comes from focusing on this eighty-year moment (to adapt your phrase) as the main event and not as a preparation for something else. When I was religious I thought a non-religious outlook must be depressing, but I find that’s really not the case.

      • hmm I find all the same things depressing now as I did when I was a believer. I think the biggest change in every day life has been that now I know I’m responsible… inaction = prayer. I don’t waste time not acting any more.

      • Oh, yeah, I think I was a bit unclear there. I didn’t mean that it makes all problems go away. Wendell Berry’s line, “When despair for the world grows in me” still rings true for me now and again. It’s just that lack of faith doesn’t intensify problems (as I once assumed it would).

      • Oh, my bad. I did not mean to imply anything about yourself, I was mostly just speaking aloud on the topic. The difference between before and now is a subject often on my mind. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s