The Right Thing

by Theodore Roethke


Original Language English

Let others probe the mystery if they can.
Time-harried prisoners of Shall and Will --
The right thing happens to the happy man.

The bird flies out, the bird flies back again:
The hill becomes the valley, and is still;
Let others delve that mystery if they can.

God bless the roots! -- Body and soul are one!
The small become the great, the great the small;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun,
His being single, and that being all;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Or he sits still, a solid figure when
The self-destructive shake the common wall;
Takes to himself what mystery he can.

And, praising change as the slow night comes on,
Wills what he would, surrendering his will
Till mystery is no more: No more he can.
The right thing happens to the happy man.

-- from Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty, Edited by Alan Jacobs

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

I have been thinking about this issue lately-- What is the right balance between actively reaching out for meaning and the experiences of life, compared with resting content and trusting that it will all naturally flow to us?

The right thing happens to the happy man.

As a younger man, I was impatient and headstrong, full of will and a determination to seize hold of a unique life path. That worked wonders in some cases, and it also created a lot of chaos and extremes. At some point I decided I didn't know what the hell I was doing other than that I was trying to escape wherever I was at the moment, so I finally gave up. That too worked wonders. When we stop trying to assert blind control, life opens up in unimagined ways.

But that too can become a shield, a sort of disengaged contentment.

Does one push or relax? Do we run toward or away or simply stand still?

Child of the dark, he can out leap the sun,
His being single, and that being all;
The right thing happens to the happy man.

Or he sits still, a solid figure when
The self-destructive shake the common wall;
Takes to himself what mystery he can.


Do we make change happen or recognize that change is already occurring and let it play out?

And, praising change as the slow night comes on,
Wills what he would, surrendering his will
Till mystery is no more: No more he can.


The answer, I suspect, is neither to take control and become the "master of one's fate" nor to be a passive spectator. It is not about will at all or non-will. It is about openness.

When we lower our shields and step out naked into life, life as it is, we see and feel and move in ways that were previously unimaginable. We no longer act out of compulsion, and neither do we stand back out of fear. We are free to choose appropriately, remaining relaxed, feeling the currents of life flowing through our movement and our stillness. And we feel a certain delight along the way.

The right thing happens to the happy man.

...or woman.



A note about the poem: Try reading this poem aloud. You may not notice the striking rhyme pattern if you read it silently in your mind. Not only do the first and third line within each triplet suggest a rhyme, but also the first line of each rhyme together, as do the second and the third.



Recommended Books: Theodore Roethke

Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems On Poetry and Craft The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke
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The Right Thing