Wendell Berry, "Be Still in Haste"

"Be Still in Haste"—strictly, an imperative, but as it regards "Haste," an invitation to meditation.

Wendell Berry, "Be Still in Haste"

Regarding Standards

Patrycja Humienik's "Unlearning My Immigrant Mother’s Ideas of Beauty" talks through one of the toughest problems. How to address ideas about living which are instrumental to one person's survival but not quite as helpful to our own? (Related: I've known immigrant parents who cannot let the kids leave the house, no matter how old they are. They feel as though the kids are all they have.) Her paragraph quoted below really struck me, because it made obvious that some see their ideas as unambiguously good, when that isn't at all how they work:

Beauty isn’t bound to goodness, morality, compassion, authenticity. This is perhaps what makes its industries so seductive and so profitable. In the poem “Hatred,” translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak, the poet Wisława Szymborska writes, “Let’s face it / it knows how to make beauty. / . . . Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.” Beauty isn’t free from the violences of human lives under war, under capitalism. It can be both sustenance and destruction. Sometimes the destruction is, at first, barely felt: a small, steady chipping away at one’s self-perception and autonomy.

How could "beauty" possibly be bad? Isn't it goodness immediately presenting itself as it is? Humienik calls forth Szymborska, who says of hatred "Let’s face it / it knows how to make beauty. / . . . Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns." Beauty, as Humienik says, "can be both sustenance and destruction," and also "a small, steady chipping away at one's self-perception and autonomy."

Below, I've written on Wendell Berry's "Be Still in Haste," and I hope it will serve as a quiet moment for you if you need one. I have found it helpful to recite to myself while applying for jobs. It's a nice break between mindlessly filling in my address for the hundredth time or answering in 500 words or less what I will bring to an institution:

Wendell Berry, "Be Still in Haste"

"Be Still in Haste"—strictly, an imperative, but as it regards "Haste," an invitation to meditation.

Does it work? None of us like to be told to "calm down" when we're stressed. "Be Still in Haste" does not challenge us outright, though. The command contains an acknowledgment. We are being hasted, made to move quicker than we would like. And so, "be still" can be interpreted as gentle.

Be Still in Haste (from Poetry)
Wendell Berry

How quietly I
begin again

from this moment
looking at the
clock, I start over

so much time has
passed, and is equaled
by whatever
split-second is present

from this
moment this moment
is the first

I need to be still in haste, as I'm applying for academic jobs. I am racing to find and complete applications before the month is over. The race, as all of you are aware, is brutal. Rob Williams has written at length about applying for 142 various academic jobs and receiving 2 offers. It isn't possible to hustle enough in this situation, but you want to feel like you did your best. You need stillness of some sort.

Berry's poem takes the shape of guided meditation. "[L]ooking at the / clock," "begin again," quietly. I imagine most of us took a slow, deep breath while reading those words. The poem means to calm. It opens "How quietly," and "looking at the / clock, I start over" has overtones of a counting breaths exercise. One way to empty the mind, help stop nervous thoughts, is to count each breath until you've counted 10. When you reach 10, start over. You're not looking to set a world record for most breaths counted; you're looking to practice relief.

"Be Still in Haste" goes further, explicitly joining calm and resolve. A metaphysical proposition is advanced, one not entirely divorced from a breath exercise, but certainly different. Your whole life, brought to the moment of "looking at the / clock," is equaled by the very next "split second." Everything you brought to your life one moment is everything you bring to the next. You grow because you are. The notion of "more" is infinitesmal and need not be worried about. Your precise progress can't seriously be assessed.

The resolve is neither based in complacency nor rejects positive change. It comes from making a decision. You decided to be still in haste. In choosing this, you chose to summon your being, gather yourself. This prepares another moment, another choice: "from this / moment this moment / is the first."