WORDS: Besieged by David Whyte

The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

Besieged by David Whyte

From Consolations


is how most people feel most of the time: by events, by people, by all the necessities of providing, parenting, or participating and even by the creative possibilities they have set in motion themselves, and most especially, a success they have achieved through long years of endeavor.

To feel crowded, set upon, blocked by circumstances, in defeat or victory, is not only the daily experience of most human beings in most contemporary societies; it has been an abiding dynamic of individual life since the dawn of human consciousness.  In a human life there is no escape from commitment: retreat to a desert island and the lonely islander will draw up a Robinson Crusoe list to make the place habitable or begin building a raft to escape; tell everyone to go away and they hang around wanting to know why.  Earn a great deal of money to gain individual freedom and a whole world moves in for a share of the harvest.

As creatures we define ourselves through belonging or not belonging, we cannot help but make commitments to people, places, and things, which then come looking for us.  Conscious or unconscious, we are surrounded not only by the vicissitudes of a difficult world but even more by those of our own making.

If the world will not go away then the great discipline seems to be the ability to make an identity that can live in the midst of everything without feeling beset.  Being besieged asks us to begin the day not with a to-do list but a not-to-do list, a moment outside of the time-bound world in which it can be reordered and reprioritized.  In this space of undoing and silence we create a foundation from which to re-imagine our day and ourselves.  Beginning the daily conversation from a point-of-view of freedom and being untethered, allows us to re-see ourselves, to reenter the world as if for the first time.  We give ourself and our accomplishments, our ambitions and our over-described hopes away, in order to see in what form they return to us.

To lift the siege, we do our best for our children but then, at the right time, send them off with a blessing, no matter their perilous direction.  We run a business while remembering, as the overhead grows, how the enterprise was originally our doorway to freedom.  We celebrate success but realize that another horizon now beckons, that we have in effect to start again, many times over.  To get the measure of our success, we learn to call for an intimate close-in interiority, rather than a hoped for, unattainable, far and away.

Besieged as we are, little wonder that men and women alternate between the dream of a place apart, untouched by the world and then wanting to be wanted again in that aloneness.  Besieged or left alone, we seem to live best at the crossroad between irretrievable aloneness and irretrievable belonging, and even better, as a conversation between the two where no choice is available.  We are both; other people will never go away and aloneness is both possible and necessary.

Creating a state of aloneness in the besieged everyday may be one of the bravest things individual men and women can do for themselves.  Nel mezzo, in the midst of everything, as Dante said, to be besieged – but beautifully, because we have made a place to stand – in the people and the places and the perplexities we have grown to love, seeing them not now as enemies or forces laying siege, but as if for the first time, as participants in the drama, both familiar and strangely surprising.  We find that having people knock on our door is as a much a privilege as it is a burden; that being seen, being recognized and being wanted by the world and having a place in which to receive everyone and everything, is infinitely preferable to its opposite.

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