When I looked up at the robins’ nest this morning, I was shocked to see how the youngsters had grown. It’s only in the last few days that they’ve begun twittering when their parents arrive with food. Before that, the only evidence of their arrival was their silent, perpetually open beaks — four — jutting skyward.
Now, though, they are sitting high in the nest, well-feathered and identifiably robins. They are visibly building toward yes, the moment when they launch into thin air on untested wings and — assuming they make it — land in the supremely vulnerable world of fledglings.
Nature is full of such moments, the culmination of an intense, compressed growth that ends in a heart-stopping instant of success or failure. Building toward yes as a human is more complicated, a conscious effort whose success is measured not in a single, ultimate moment but over the long, oscillating arc of a lifetime.
In Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev, the poet Adrienne Rich assumes the voice of Shatayev, leader of a women’s climbing team that attempted in August 1974 to summit 23,406-foot Lenin Peak in Russia:
For months for years each one of us
had felt her own yes growing in her
slowly forming as she stood at windows waited
for trains mended her rucksack combed her hair
What we were to learn was simply what we had
up here as out of all words that yes gathered
its forces fused itself and only just in time
to meet a No of no degrees
the black hole sucking the world in
Sooner or later, most of us meet some ultimate test, a metaphorical mountain if not a literal one. Sometimes, like Shatayev, we seek it out. Often, it arrives unbidden in the form of crisis or loss. Some of us are faced with what feels less like a single mountain and more like a mountain range, another summit always looming. Depression can feel like that; so can grief, illness, disability and a thousand other forms of suffering that wrench the human spirit.
Always, such challenges require us to dive deep within, to meet fear and other primal emotions in the land of the unfamiliar. They make suddenly, starkly conscious the choice we each face, unconsciously, every day: to live wholeheartedly, aligned with the yes within, or to yield to that inexorable black hole, a no that in the world of ordinary mortals takes the form of complacency, of getting by.
“Courage,” said C.S. Lewis, “is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Building toward yes as a human is all about courage. Not just a single moment — launching ourselves into thin air, to fly or fall one ultimate time — but an ongoing willingness to give our best and most conscious effort to this life while we have it, in full knowledge that the outcome is far from assured.
For a time, we rise to the mark; we meet with power and grace the challenge set before us, as did Shatayev and her team:
Now we are ready
and each of us knows it I have never loved
like this I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love
Then we are undone by some elemental inner or outer disruption. The yes we have marshaled is engulfed and seemingly overwhelmed by that no of no degrees: Shatayev’s team ultimately perished in a storm on Lenin Peak.
Yet in imagining their final minutes, Rich values the indomitable spirit of the climbers — choosing ourselves each other and this life — over the singular moment of their deaths:
We know now we have always been in danger
down in our separateness
and now up here together but till now
we had not touched our strength …
What does love mean
what does it mean “to survive”
A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow We will not live
to settle for less We have dreamed of this
all of our lives
I looked at those baby robins this morning and considered their precarious leap into the unknown; it will be soon now. And I envied them. A moment of courage, and their work is done. As humans, ours continues: the willingness to keep refusing that no of no degrees, to keep building toward yes. To keep choosing ourselves, each other and this life. To not be willing to settle for less.