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Book Talk

Sarah Wilson on This One Wild and Precious Life

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Sarah Wilson asks readers to “take an active role in fighting for what we love.”

Sarah Wilson is a writer, activist, and enthusiastic hiker. In addition to walking the world she's written 11 cookbooks, the New York Times bestseller I Quit Sugar, and a memoir about living with anxiety called First, We Make the Beast Beautiful.

In her latest book, This One Wild and Precious Life: The Path Back to Connection in a Fractured World, Wilson challenges readers to wake up to the reality of what humanity is facing today and take an active role in fighting for what we love. We‘re in dire straits, she says, but “once we feel into or exist in beauty, love and hope rush in.”

S&H: You write about the opportunity we have to wake up and become aware of what's really going on in our world. How do we know when we‘re in the opposite state—“asleep” or unaware?

Sarah Wilson: At a material level, it’s felt as both a numb fogginess, like we’re under a duvet, unable to breathe or see clearly, as well as an “itch,” a certain cringey, creeping feeling that we are not attending to something important to our souls. James Hollis speaks of our soul‘s call to an appointment with life. If we remain numb or deaf to this call, our souls will continue to agitate.

What can prompt us to take a risk and seek that uncomfortable edge that so often translates into a more meaningful life?

In our current age, we don’t have many opportunities that take us to that alive and spirited place, but we can create them. We can “get ourselves into a bit of trouble.” Taking physical risks works. I took up ocean swimming for this reason—to feel the eyes-wide-open pulse of life.

For you, it might entail trying hiking for the first time. We can also practice sitting in discomfort, which has formed part of just about every spiritual tradition throughout history. Some examples—we might delay gratification or do a “dopamine fast” by turning off technology for radical chunks of time.

What was difficult about writing This One Wild and Precious Life? What was rewarding?

The hardest bit was living out the journey I encourage others to do in my book. I had to sit in the pain and fear and anger and disappointment in humanity and find a path of hope that I truly believed. I had to go down as far as I could into the darkness of the uncertainty that we straddle in 2021. The most rewarding aspect, however, was finding this path. And ultimately falling back in love with humanity again.

In This One Wild and Precious Life, you talk about “acedia,” a listless spiritual state, or not being concerned about others. How can we identify acedia in ourselves and push against it?

Ultimately, we reconnect with this one wild and precious life. We join it and remind ourselves of our love for it. This can be by appreciating it more astutely via “soul nerding,” which I write about, or going straight to nature, which is to say, go and be in it. When we love something, we will rise from our asleepness and fight to save it.

What about Mary Oliver’s poem "The Summer Day" speaks to you? Why did you refer to it in your title?

All of Oliver’s poems speak to the power of paying attention to the minutiae of nature as a practice that brings us into the congruence we seek. This particular poem speaks to this simple and joyous truth. She reminds us: “I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention.” The final line is a very pertinent call to action for our times, demanding that we engage in a plan: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

How can we avoid trying to be heroic and instead be simply, ordinarily of service?

I think the simple realization that all the solutions to the climate crisis, for example, already exist. The heroic work has been done, in the main. What is missing and is jeopardizing our existence is a mass enabling and following of the ideas and solutions that exist. The biggest impact we can each make is to:

  • Back the prophets (sign their petitions, support them when they bravely stand at the pulpit).
  • Start where we are (to borrow a Pema Chodron phrase). That is, contribute what we are uniquely good at. If you are a web developer, don’t start a new climate group; proffer your web services to an existing one. We simply don’t have time for heroic stuff, we need everyone to help efficiently.

    You list a number of ways to develop “anti-fragility.” Are there any you would suggest your readers start with to cultivate this resilience?

    Meditation is probably one of the most effective ways to practice sitting in discomfort. I also have a phrase, “stay longer,” that I apply when I feel discomfort, or more accurately, the urge to flee the discomfort.

    How can we think about reward in this moment of human history? That is, how can we move from acting out of self-interest to acting for the common good?

    I think one of the most effective ways to rediscover the value of things such as sacrifice and noble acts of compromise is to talk about them again. To notice them in action, to reward these kinds of behaviors. The mere act of studying them reminds us of how the truism—that attending to the collective ultimately makes us happier or makes our life more meaningful than pursuing our own selfish needs.

    This discussion needs to be had in the contemporary spiritual realm. We currently do what I call “spiritualism lite,” the diet version of the traditions whereby we cherrypick the pleasant, “love and light” aspects of Buddhism or Ayurveda and leave out the sacrifice, the hard work, the surrendering, the being of service and the being politically activated. The spiritual has always been political. This needs to be acknowledged and then reintroduced into our practices.

    Read more in “Working Toward Loving Conditions For All Beings.”

    Also, read our review of This One Wild and Precious Life, and read an excerpt from the book here.

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