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Is the Soul Solid, like Iron?

Mary Oliver has a beautiful little poem in which she asks:

“Is the soul solid, like iron?
or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?”


It is both.

The soul, we are told by philosophers, theologians, and mystics, is our essence, the permanence of our true self. It is that part of us that lives beyond death. Or so we are taught by religion. Where exactly the soul exists beyond that, has of course, been long debated.

There are times in life when something deep within us is, as Mary Oliver says, solid as iron and we operate out of some sense of aliveness, confidence, and inner strength. It may be fleeting, but there when needed; or it may carry us through long periods of endurance when we build a sturdy self, confident and capable of our abilities and talents.

This is the work of the soul. This is a part of our spiritual development. This is what enables us to believe there are forces in life, loving and generous and mystical, that nurture and compel us toward growth and substance and maturity; that aide us in our longing to be authentic and caring, compassionate and humane.

Companionship feeds our soul. Intimacy. Laughter. Affection. Connection. Grace. Praise. Appreciation. Belief in us. Successes. Achievements. All of this lifts and affirms and settles us into feelings of worth, of aplomb, of poise and balance. It’s the stuff that makes us glad we are here. It urges us on in the pursuance of doing good.

“Love,” wrote Shakespeare, “is holy.” Yes, it is. So powerful. It is what creates iron in the soul. And it comes to us in surprising and routine and dependable ways, from people and pets, from nature and nurture, from work and leisure, from food and drink, from things as simple as rest and as majestic as the ocean. All of that touches us and humanizes us. And the soul cannot progress without it.

But the soul does have its vulnerabilities. It can be tender and breakable. Even iron can be melted or broken under severe circumstances. The soul, solid like iron, can be compromised, too.

Last year Ingrid did not make the front row of girls on the dance team to perform at Homecoming. She was moved to the back row where the girls with lesser talent were placed. She called me that evening in tears. We talked a while and she grew calm. Later, I called back to check on her. Her voice was quiet but still full of tears. I did my best to reassure her, to send my love through the phone, to reach her with gentle words. But when the soul is wounded, words don’t help much. I got in my car and drove to the house. It was late and I figured everyone was in bed but I had to be there. She, her mom, and her grandmother answered the door. Ingrid fell into my arms, saying, “Oh Poppy, why are you here?” And holding her tight I said, “I’m here for you, sweetie. I wanted to be sure you were okay.” She sighed deeply and would not let go. Just my presence carried the assurance of how much she is loved.

When life hurts us; when death comes unannounced and takes someone we love; when the bottom falls out of our marriage and we crumble in guilt and shame and bewilderment; when we lose our job; when income fails to cover our basic needs and we panic about tomorrow; when our children are caught in addiction or some fatal disease; when our parents can’t accept who we are; when friends betray us—our soul turns tender and breakable.

This is when love must somehow reach us, must make its presence known. That is how we endure, and ripen, and develop and grow strong.

Love does not ask us to be something we are not, but to be more fully who we are. That’s how we survive. It is all a part of the work of the soul.

By the way, Ingrid worked harder on her dance routines. Last fall she auditioned for the Belles Dancers, the more advanced dance group in the high school, and she was accepted. Things don't always work out, but love impels us to try, and sometimes, we surprise ourselves.


© 2017 Timothy Moody

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