Believing Mary Oliver

Image from Pawel Cerwinski via Unsplash

The first time I heard Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese was in a therapist’s office nearly a decade ago. It was our first session, and I was trying to explain the crippling perfectionism that has often accompanied my spiritual life. The man nodded understandingly, then offered this passage as an antidote:

You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

As I heard the words I felt my heart swell, then promptly clamp down. Clearly, I thought, this guy doesn’t get Mormonism. I called the office later to see if they had any LDS therapists. They didn’t, so I didn’t go back. 

Mary’s words re-entered my life last year, and they invoked the same reaction. Curious if I was alone in it, I did what any millennial would and turned to my Instagram stories to conduct a poll. 

I asked simply – if you are LDS, do you think these words are true? The results:

Yes 42%

No 58%

My DM’s were flooded by people wanting to discuss. Some timidly defended their no with something like, “because we have to obey the commandments, right?” More frequently were people adding something like, “No, but I wish it was,” or “I hope it can be someday.” 

I am actually shocked so many people said yes, and want some of whatever they’re smoking. After a decade unable to believe Mary, I’m ready to figure out how. 


I think the reason so many people answered no is Mosiah 3. 

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit. 

From a young age, I swallowed this scripture whole. I took it to mean that at my core I was bad, that the only way to become a better person was to mistrust my instincts because they were the opposite of Godly.

I now find this stupid. Of course I understand that the intent of this scripture is to urge us away from giving into our baser instincts, but the way I interpreted it caused me to fear myself, and in turn, distance myself from God. 

In one of my favorite talks, Deter Uchtdorf says, “Fear rarely has the power to change our hearts, and it will never transform us into people who love what is right and who want to obey Heavenly Father.”

If I’m honest, it’s fear, not love, that motivates me to “be good,” by which I mean checking church boxes and calling it a spiritual life.

It is fear that crops up when I think of the word “repent,” because I have long framed it the way Mary does, as walking on my knees for a hundred miles through the desert.

It is fear that tells me if I let the soft animal of my body love what it loves, I’ll end up having an affair and/or being addicted to hard drugs. Lol.

Fear has gotten me to an obedient place in my faith. But it is frail compared to a belief motivated by love.

What does it mean to “let the soft animal of your body love what it loves?” I’ll tell you a weird time I think I felt it. 

It was February of last year and I was six weeks postpartum. I had prayed for comfort more desperately in those six weeks than ever in my life. I’d tried all the things I thought would make myself feel better: clean the house, get some exercise, maybe serve someone! But my body continued to feel like a shell of its former self, my mind a swirling dark chaos. 

A good friend asked if she could come see the baby and instead I asked if she would go see Greta Gerwig’s Little Women with me. It was the first time I had left my son, and was accompanied by my first doses of mom guilt.

We sat in cushy oversized chairs that reclined and had seat heaters. We shared gooey soft licorice and sea salt caramel chocolates I’d smuggled in in my diaper bag. We saw Laurie and Jo and Amy and Meg depicted more beautifully than we’d ever seen them before. We felt our emotions rise with every violin swell, the joys and agonies of sacrifice and love and family and big dreams fulfilled and lost. We wept several times apiece. 

At the risk of sounding like Pam Beesley, I felt God in that theater. I felt like a human again, with all the necessary evidence: goosebumps, tears, pounding heart, smile. I felt surprised that something as frivolous as a movie could bring me back to myself, but also couldn’t deny it. After the most primal experience a woman can have, I did not need to further flog myself with to-do lists. I just needed to love something, in a different way than I loved my son. 

So then is ‘soft animal love’ the same as ‘giving in to the natural man?’ 

To me, this “soft animal love” means the rare and beautiful moments when my mind, body, and spirit align and elevate to a higher plane. 

I think it means eating delicious food at a restaurant bejeweled by twinkle lights, where you stay long after the check comes. I think it means a hike with friends where you look at trees instead of twitter. I think it means Thanksgiving.

(Think of everything you weren’t allowed to do in 2020 and that’s pretty much it.)

I’ll allow there is something sensual about ‘soft animal love,’ something worldly or physical that might not accompany our typical ideas of church. But I think if Mary had been promoting giving in to the natural man, she would have written something like, “let the hardened beast of your body take what it wants.” 

We could argue natural man vs. soft animal all day, which would be pointless as both are functions of language and narrators whose minds we don’t know. The point, I think, is how we interpret them. 

I just am really wondering what good it has done me for so long to assume the worst of myself. What would happen if I believed that if left to love what I love, the answer would be God? 

It might be finding God through abundance. It might be feeling my body come alive, whether through exercise or sex or art. It might be feeling the spirit in nature as well as at church. 

It might not be the God of asceticism, but does it have to be? If God only operates through discipline, why would our temples be so beautiful, their celestial rooms decked in flowers and chandeliers? 

I think God is in our bodies and the world around us. I think he is in art and music and movies, as well as the commandments. I think the emotional drought we have experienced in the last year has been a stark reminder of what life is like when the soft animals of our bodies cannot love what they love. 

Because God said men are that we might have joy. And Mary clarified that joy is not made to be a crumb. 

“If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.” 

– Mary Oliver


  1. That’s a lovely essay, Rebbie.

    As I read King Benjamin’s sermon, the “natural man” has nothing to do with the opposition of body and spirit, or of flesh and something more ethereal. I mean, I can understand why some people might be frightened by Mary Oliver’s talk about whatever the “soft animal of the body” loves. That might sound aggressively, unpleasantly sensual if you’re tuned in to a certain mistaken way of perceiving things. But I don’t think it’s right to interpret King Benjamin as warning us not to listen to our bodies.

    The characteristics of Benjamin’s natural man are pride, callousness, and poor understanding. A hard heart and a stiff neck. In general, hardness. Putting off the natural man makes us childlike, submissive, humble, meek, patient, and full of love. These are all things that we tend to think of as soft. Benjamin sets up an opposition not between the physical and the spiritual, but between the hard and the soft.

    “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” That sounds mostly right to me. Of all Christian people, we Latter-day Saints should not be afraid of our bodies. Our bodies are not a trap. They are a divine gift, without which we cannot be saved. Being guided by the “soft animal of your body” is part of what it takes to find the softness, the tenderness, that King Benjamin wants for us.

  2. How sad that we’ve been taught not to trust our love.

    We are born whole and with the light of Christ. Mormonism tells us that’s not enough, that we need to trust not our internal moral compass but an external authority in the Holy Ghost, and that we can actually only have access to that if an external (male) gatekeeper gives it to us and if we are keeping all the rules. And some of the rules are to not love certain people. (Don’t tell me that we are taught to love gay people. Loving someone and stripping them of their humanity isn’t love.)

    The Church takes what we already have and sells an inferior version back to us. I’m with Mary here.

  3. When you let the soft animal of your body love what it loves, goodness follows.

    “Have to be” is a cruel thing; don’t we believe that’s what we all rejected before we came here? Good doesn’t come from “have to be.” It can’t.

    This was such a beautiful essay. Thank you.

  4. Man (and woman) is that he might have joy. We are here to have joy. And love is a big part of that joy.
    I have always thought he was having a bad day when he wrote the natural man stuff.

  5. Obviously the problem is focusing on the natural “man.” Hasn’t the church spent hundreds of hours of your life teaching that the natural “woman” is soft and nurturing?

    I jest. But seriously. I feel this. I know this sense of just wanting peace and safety and joy for myself and for the world and then berating myself because where that leads me conflicts with some dumb “commandment.” That’s where I’ve ended up: If love god and love my neighbor are the two greatest commandments, literally all other gloss we put on all lesser commandments is false if it doesn’t lead to love. I just throw them away.

    My therapist once called that slow realization of mine a “tetonic shift” in my worldview. She wasn’t wrong. My husband now jokes all the time that I’ve become a terrible Mormon but a much better Christian and human being.

  6. “Joy is not made to be a crumb.” 
    And from Carolyn
    “If love god and love my neighbor are the two greatest commandments, literally all other gloss we put on all lesser commandments is false if it doesn’t lead to love. I just throw them away”
    I love that. Thank you I needed to hear that.

  7. This is really great, Rebbie.

    My own take on the “natural man” scripture is that we mostly misunderstand it. I don’t think it’s there to tell us not to trust our instincts and I don’t think it’s necessarily there to warn us away from our baser instincts. I think it’s there to tell us that we need to stop trying to make ourselves good by force of will and instead exercise faith in Christ by yielding to the holy spirit, because, although the “natural man” in us wants to resist grace and be self-sufficient, ultimately, what does the soft animal of our soul, body and spirit, love more than God?

  8. To Loursat and Jared – thanks for sharing your takes on Mosiah 3. I love the concept that King Benjamin was in fact talking about hard vs. soft, not physical vs. spiritual.

    And for Carolyn my goodness, AMEN to your jest. Here’s to bringing our religion to therapy. Whatever gets us to better Christianity is godly in my book.

  9. FWIW I’ve told people for years (both as a teacher and otherwise) that the most accurate paraphrase of Mosiah 3:19 is “Jesus wants us for a Sunbeam”

  10. Beautiful essay. Thank you so much for writing this.

    I think we often forget that each person has an individual relationship with God and that He has an individual plan that is just for them. Therefore, each individual experiences the “natural man” differently. The “natural man” is different for each person, and each person has a different way of shaking it off.

    Above all, God wants us to have joy. The scriptures say, “Adam fell that men might be and men are that they might have joy.” Christ died for us – and took our sins upon us – but wouldn’t that sacrifice be futile if there wasn’t any joy to be had? We each feel and have joy, and come back to God, and to being, in different ways. I’ve had to remind myself throughout different times in my life that just because my way of shaking off the natural man, of having joy, of progressing, is different than another person’s, it doesn’t mean that person is “lost” or “doing it wrong.” We’re all just here trying to do our best with what God has given us and learning how He speaks to us, individually.

  11. I think so much of this depends on your personal weaknesses. I have watched a good friend throw away her marriage and destroy her family by having an affair with a man who came into her life when she and her husband were struggling. After her divorce and marriage to the man she had the affair with, she admitted she and her new husband had the same differences she experienced in her first marriage. But now her children were being traded back and forth each summer in a parking lot half way between the two families, full siblings never living together again. She and her new husband were unwilling to admit fault sufficient to repent, so the children were growing up without the gospel.
    So I think of King Benjamin as I do the road signs that point out dangerous curves ahead. They act as warnings that my wisdom is insufficient for the threats that lie ahead.

  12. I love this essay. I hadn’t read this Mary Oliver poem, and just over a month ago I saw my first hanging in a high school classroom where I was subbing, which really caught my attention. “To pay attention, that is our endless and proper work.” My younger brother is currently taking a class from Teryl Givens and mentioned to me that Teryl believes “natural man” to mean “socialized man” according to the usage of the word at the time. Perhaps that helps ease any friction between that beautiful line and Mosiah 3:19.

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