The Poem That Changed My Life- And Might Change Yours

 

I first came across this poem when I was desperately ill with depression. One key step to getting better was to stop fighting and denying the reality of the illness. This poem, by the Persian poet and Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi, was a lifeline. Before I go any further, let me reproduce the poem:

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The Guest House

This being human is a guest house

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,

meet them at the door laughing,

and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

~Rumi

 

The first thing that amazed me was that these words, so modern in feeling, were written over seven hundred years ago – and yes, I know the translation is a modern one, but the sentiments remain exceptionally current and fresh.


Acceptance

The poem says that we must welcome whatever befalls us. We are like a guesthouse and we must ‘treat each guest honourably’ even if we are greeted by a ‘crowd of sorrows.’ This most seemingly unprepossessing guest ‘may be clearing you out for some new delight.’

I discussed the importance of acceptance that very day with my psychiatrist. He said a key part of getting better, no matter what you are suffering from, is to accept the illness and work with it, rather than deny it. Rumi helped me hugely on this point. I love the way his poem uses imperatives throughout, but in a gentle way. He is not so much ordering us to accept anything that happens to us, but rather speaking from his own immense experience.


Being in the moment or Live in the moment

Rumi also helped me be in the moment. Being frightened of the future, worrying about whether we will be able to manage, is pointless. What will happen, will happen, and we need to embrace that uncertainty. This really spoke to me, as one of the key characteristics about being depressed is that we are NOT in the moment.

With the help of Rumi, and by endlessly repeating his soothing and wise lines, I’ve learned to embrace the present and the reality of now. Whatever happens, we only need to cope with this present second.


Letting emotions pass or Let go of emotions

In the present second, we may feel strong emotions, but they too will pass. The whole poem is a metaphor. Emotions and experiences are personified, in contrast with the objectification of the self – we are like a house that hosts all these different feelings which will pass through our doors like guests.

I love the contrast between the solidity and resilience of the house, which stands firm, compared to the passing presence of the guests, the emotions. I really hope this poem helps you as much as it has helped me. I now recite it whenever I feel wobbly, and I always feel calm and happy afterward. And unlike taking meds, it is free and has no side-effects!


*Originally published in ‘Black Rainbow: how words healed me – my journey through depression’*


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Rachel Kelly

You can find her at at Rachel-Kelly.net
Educated at Oxford University, Rachel Kelly spent ten years as a journalist at The Times. She is the co-editor of iF: A Treasury of Poems for Almost Every Possibility (Canongate, 2012) and the creator of two poetry apps. Rachel gives talks and runs workshops across the country on the therapeutic value of the arts.

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