From Song of Myself
by Walt Whitman
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
This excerpt, from the 1892 version of Walt Whitman’s long poem, Song of Myself, came to my attention because a friend of mine, recently recovered from breast cancer, was at a literary fundraiser this summer and shared her story with me in an email. Erin wrote: “They had ‘scrolls’ rolled up at each table setting—a poem for each guest, placed at random around the tables. Guests were invited to read their poem up at the podium throughout the dinner. My scroll turned out to be a part of a Walt Whitman poem. I found him on my plate rather than ‘under my boot-soles’ that night. I cried reading it to myself at the table, and I cried reading it to the guests at the podium. Reading his ‘I’ up at the podium, it became my ‘I’. It was like his words were writing me into health again, making it so, just by their simple confidence and existence.”
After Erin’s heartfelt letter, I have returned to this passage numerous times and found Whitman inviting me not only into health, but also into a full and unbridled self-acceptance. Whitman seems to be urging us to let all beliefs, all “creeds and schools,” fall into disuse, for we know ourselves, our minds and bodies, and we can “begin” as he does, acting right this moment as “nature without check with original energy.” We can choose to remember at all times that, no matter what “multitudes” we might contain—be it HIV or cancer or any other illness or virus—we are “natural” and whole, “form’d from this soil, this air.” This excerpt also reminded me of what spiritual thinker Marianne Williamson has written about the nature of body and spirit in her seminal book, A Return to Love: “Love changes the way we think about our disease. Illness comes from separation . . . and healing comes from joining. Of course people hate their cancer, or hate their AIDS, but the last thing a sick person needs is something else to hate about themselves. Healing results from a transformed perception of our relationship to illness, one in which we respond to the problem with love instead of fear.” I believe that true healing, of self and society, “comes from joining,” both with the parts of ourselves we’d rather reject, and with each other, sharing our stories deeply and vulnerably in public, so that we might all become the “I’ that heals and is healed.