This Thanksgiving, I forgot to count my blessings. When people listed what they were grateful for, I went "oops." I don't want to say that I was too busy to be thankful. I believe, rather, a poem from Dickinson is operative here. Note how the first line of it absolves me from all blame: "The things we thought that we should do / We other things have done." See? No one accomplishes anything, so it's totally okay I was anything but a decent human being.
The things we thought that we should do (J 1293) Emily Dickinson The things we thought that we should do We other things have done But those peculiar industries Have never been begun — The Lands we thought that we should seek When large enough to run By Speculation ceded To Speculation's Son — The Heaven, in which we hoped to pause When Discipline was done Untenable to Logic But possibly the one —
We have done other things, Dickinson says, than what we told ourselves we should do. Is this a big problem or none at all? I could say it isn't an issue. We've got lots of goals and aspirations which have to be put aside for other priorities. For example, I need to be working on papers and a book proposal, but some of the most fun I've had these past few weeks involved teaching 5th grade and 1st grade. (I've saved the stickers that the 1st graders flooded my suit jacket with.) Dickinson, of course, has no patience for my weakness. At the end of the first stanza she declares "...those peculiar industries / Have never been begun." We (meaning me) didn't even start the things I thought I should do!
It's always a fun time when you read poetry and you feel like the poem is yelling at you. In this case, I'm wondering what it means to start anything at all. Dickinson's first stanza strongly implies that if we actually started things, we'd automatically finish them. By extension, if I really want those papers and the book done, they'll get done. I can safely say I've been reading more for one paper and figuring out framing. So should I feel certain that it will be done and published?
On the one hand, it is ridiculous to tell someone they are not working hard enough or feeling confident enough when they are clearly working with purpose. The temptation is to judge the effort by the result alone. That's how people who don't accomplish anything themselves put everyone else down. On the other hand, I'm realizing there are plenty of times we do the work but don't fully understand what is at stake. I think that's what's happening with Dickinson's implicit question. What does it mean to truly start something? If you don't attempt this, if you neglect the "how" and "why" of what should be done, there's a specific consequence. You miss out on discovery. Look at Dickinson's second stanza, which talks about what else we thought we should do:
The Lands we thought that we should seek
When large enough to run
By Speculation ceded
To Speculation's Son —
"The Lands we thought that we should seek" are ceded to "Speculation's Son." It's an effective formulation, an expansion of the first stanza. What you should do is also what you should seek. You've grown--you've become "large enough to run"– but you drop your commitment to seeking a different world. You can't say you speculated, as you failed to do that. Discovery is not even the province of "Speculation," but merely "Speculation's Son."
The inability to see discovery as a possibility is Dickinson's central insight. I've got to follow up on what I think in order to find something new. That sounds strange. Don't we find new things when we get away from the things we thought we should do? --No, actually. You have to stick to the plan to a certain degree in order to find the true deviation. What an earlier age called the nature of things.--
There's more. I'm making this lyric sound like it's about knowledge. It is, but it is more strictly about commitment. This puts us at an intersection of three themes: knowledge, power, and love. Power can be seen when summing up the whole poem. If we do everything we didn't mean to do, were we empowered? Love is the question which reaches beyond the poem. Take a look at her last stanza:
The Heaven, in which we hoped to pause
When Discipline was done
Untenable to Logic
But possibly the one —
"...[W]e hoped to pause / When Discipline was done" – we did everything we had to, now can we get to the things we thought we should do? Can we find time for each other, or were our thoughts for each other a complete lapse of logic?
I've known some people who just refused to make time for others. I had a friend who had to be dating two people at once, in case one didn't work out. In the end, my friend made time for no one. Dickinson's poem pushes a powerful point. If you want to know someone, if you want to discover something about them, then you need to invest the time. The thought, the thing that should be done, has to get done.
What's really interesting is who this poem is meant for. I don't think it addresses people who can't tell the difference between friends and drinking buddies. Dickinson and the intended audience both seem like serious people who are doing lots of other things because they're keeping the world afloat. "Heaven" is sorely needed; the world owes them the time for each other. I can't remember where I read it, but I think it was an interview with the poet Linda Gregg, and she said something to the effect that she sought love for everything but the romance. She implied love was so much greater than a pleasure here or there or even planning a life together. I feel like there's a sense of commitment in this poem that I want to understand and adopt.