You do not have to be good

“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.”

—Mary Oliver


These words of the late poet Mary Oliver have been my comfort and my companion over many years. I have whispered them to myself in searingly painful moments, read them aloud in writing workshops, and shared the poem they come from, Wild Geese, with countless friends.

I think the reason I find these words so powerful is because they are the antithesis of what we have been taught as women. To be good always. To be good girls.

And because they are the opposite of what we have learned, they strike like lightning, right at the heart of us. They burst through glass, leaving jagged shards, into our closed rooms. They may cause us to take a deep and shuddering breath. They might make us cry.

We have been taught to be kind and nurturing and easy to get along with. We have been told to tamp down our fire and to disavow our anger and to not have emotions that make other people uncomfortable. We have been instructed to try harder and be better.

But Mary Oliver’s words encourage us to be simply human. To be ourselves, not what others want us to be or have said we should be.

“You do not have to be good.” What a revelation. What it means to me is “You can be yourself.” What freedom.

When we have the freedom to choose, when we have the permission to not be good, what is our path forward?

Why don’t you take a few minutes right now and use these questions as a writing prompt? Grab a notebook and pen and gift yourself 10 or 15 minutes to write about this.

What else is available to me if I don’t have to be good, if I don’t have to act in a certain way, if I don’t have to be what other people expect or desire? 

What do I want to feel? What do I want to express? What do I want to imagine and live?