How often are you on the verge of making a usual mistake?

Today is May 2 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you on the verge of making a usual mistake?” While navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well it remains helpful to understand the mistakes others make. Such awareness can provide a roadmap to follow as we learn to navigate roadblocks, detours, and turns along our path.


The great sage of American poetry, Walt Whitman, provided such insight in his poem “Song of Myself” published in Leaves of Grass. This poem had no title in the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass. In 1856 it was called "A Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" and in 1860 it was simply termed "Walt Whitman." Whitman changed the title to "Song of Myself" in 1881. The changes in the title are significant in indicating the growth of the meaning of the poem.


Whitman applies three important themes in “Song of Myself.’ First, he examined the idea of the self and wrote about its complexity. Second, he used the poem to study the identification of the self with other selves. Finally, Whitman focused a good deal of attention on his relationship with the elements of nature and the universe.


For Whitman, the self is conceived of as a spiritual entity which remains relatively permanent in and through the changing flux of ideas and experiences which constitute its conscious life. The self exists due to a constellation of ideas, experiences, psychological states, and spiritual insights. The concept of self is the most significant aspect of Whitman's mind and art. To Whitman, the self is both individual and universal. Man has an individual self, whereas the world, or cosmos, has a universal or cosmic self. The poet wishes to maintain the identity of his individual self, and yet he desires to merge it with the universal self, which involves the identification of the poet's self with mankind and the mystical union of the poet with God, the Absolute Self.


Selected lines from his poem are:


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. Enough! enough! enough!

Somehow I have been stunn’d. Stand back!


Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers, dreams, gaping,

I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.

That I could forget the mockers and insults!

That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!

That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.


I remember now,

I resume the overstaid fraction,

The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves,

Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me.


I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power, one of an average unending procession,

Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines,

Our swift ordinances on their way over the whole earth,

The blossoms we wear in our hats the growth of thousands of years.


In one section he found himself “on the verge of a usual mistake,” the error of mistaking the mockery and insults and tears and blows as the essential meaning of life. While navigating the chaos and practicing the art of living well people will mock you. They will insult you. And they will do as much as possible to stop you.


This happens so frequently, with such intensity, that Whitman described such attack on oneself as ‘a usual mistake.’ The poet continued and urged himself to ‘forget the mockers and insults!’ ‘forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!’ and ‘look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.’

  • Can you forget the mockers?

  • Will you allow the insults to prevent you from navigating the chaos?

  • Do you give yourself permission to forget the tears?

  • How often do you give yourself even the slightest of moments to consider your own death?

To navigate the chaos and practice the art of living well you should consider remaining ever vigilant against the usual mistake. Allowing the all-consuming events of the world and those in it to preclude you from translating your dream into reality remains a responsibility only you can fulfill. As Stephen Cope wrote in The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling, “Walt Whitman became the witness for his generation and for the world. He was a witness to the nobility of spirit that emerged in the center of cataclysm, of massacre, of the Civil War. He took on the task-a devouring task-of understanding the meaning of the war - seeing the madness, speaking it, grieving wildly for the loss of precious life and innocence.”


How often are you on the verge of making a usual mistake?