“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This quote from Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day” is often used in motivational talks, articles, and Facebook posts. Unfortunately, I believe they misinterpret Oliver’s intentions in writing those lines.
The poem describes a day of quiet solitude, paying attention to the details and beauty of the natural world. Oliver tells us she knows “how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.” Then she alludes to the speed at which our fragile and temporary lives pass by before posing that now well-known question.
I was reminded of this while watching the docudrama “Nyad”, about Diana Nyad’s 100-mile swim from Cuba to Florida (without a shark cage). In the movie, she invokes it as a call to do something spectacular with your life, which, for her, is to repeatedly hurl herself into the ocean attempting to complete this impossible swim.
I noticed in the film something I have noticed in my own life and the lives of many leaders I have known. Great achievements come with a hefty price tag. Often, the first thing it costs us is the ability to participate and be fully present with the people and world around us. This was pointed out several times in the film as Nyad’s singular obsession caused her to make demands on her closest friends without the ability to acknowledge what she was asking for.
If we are not careful, great achievement rapidly becomes a selfish and self-serving endeavor. Before my recovery, I accomplished a lot of big things—things that appeared to be good for the community at large. However, my motivation was selfish, and therefore, I asked people for a level of sacrifice I had no right to request. At one point in “Nyad,” Diana’s best friend complains that she has sacrificed things she wanted for herself to help Diana realize her dream. Diana’s response was to basically say, “Suck it up.” If we are being extremely selfish, it doesn’t make it okay to say, “We are doing something incredible here.”
Does this mean we shouldn’t attempt great things? No. Of course not. Some people are called to do big things, and if that is you, you should do them. We must, however, acknowledge the cost and be honest with the people around us about that. We must also give people the freedom to choose to be involved at a level that is healthy for them.
There are different aspects to a vision that make it great. Having the vision to see something that doesn’t currently exist is rare. Having the personal grit to do whatever it takes to accomplish that vision is even rarer. Having the leadership capacity to involve others in that vision without requiring them to sacrifice at your level is the rarest.
What is truly tragic is for someone to exchange their life, their time, and their presence, for existence. If we are so consumed by doing that we fail to be, we miss one of the most significant parts of our life—the ability to “be idle and blessed.” If we, through our leadership, rob others of that blessing, it is a much greater tragedy.
Do great things. Follow your dream (which will require sacrifice and dedication). That is what great leaders do. Great leaders also care for the people they lead and protect them from being used up in the pursuit of the leader’s dream. Great leaders also know how to spend a day strolling through the fields, and, in doing so, give the people around them permission to do so too.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? I hope it includes being intentionally present in the small miracles of life and encouraging others to see them also. Given the busyness of our world and the propensity we all have to “do,” the ability to “be” is truly wild and precious, and it is part of the Bison Way.