Words that come knocking like a gentle prayer for the heart


Words that come knocking like a gentle prayer for the heart

ANNELIESE BURGESS stumbles across an extraordinary book of essays in which the poet and philosopher David Whyte explores the delicate interplay between the words we use and the emotions they describe. The essays are a prayer for the heart, delivered with a bracing intellectual elegance and sensitivity to the human spirit.


It is a Saturday morning. I watch the vervet monkeys fuss in the guava tree in front of my bedroom window. I am trying to work on a chapter in a book that has been lying like lead in my head for two years. 

My WhatsApp pings with a message from a colleague.

... if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
because finally
after all this struggle
and all these years
you simply don’t want to
any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

I am at that very moment listening to David Whyte read the poem from which this excerpt comes. In his soft, lilting Irish brogue. Words like rolling marbles. Through shards of dark and light.

David Whyte

David Whyte is the author of four books of prose and eight collections of poetry in which he immerses himself in what he calls  “the conversational nature of reality".

I have two of his poetry books in my Kindle archive, but the telepathy of the Saturday morning message from Elna moves me to dig deeper into his body of work. 

The only “immediate” version of Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words is the Audible edition. That afternoon on my walk, I began to listen. For 12km, along a mountain trail with the ocean shimmering in the distance, I allow his words to wash over me.

Sometimes I have to stop to let the full meaning of his words percolate in the silence. I also find myself going back often, relistening to passages and each time tearing off a new flake of meaning from the extraordinary richness of his writing. 

Whyte says of this book that it “is dedicated to words and their beautiful hidden and beckoning uncertainty."

To say that this collection of writing is extraordinary is almost inadequate. The delicate way in which Whyte peels away the superficial semanticism of 52 ordinary words to reveal other, more profound, sometimes completely counterintuitive meanings, is like nothing I have read before, or in this case, felt before. As I listen, the words come together in a magnificent tapestry.

It's also in how he does it, the precise but simple way he peels down to the core of each word. With the touch of a poet but the insight of a sage. Maria Popova of The Marginalian says he does it all “with a sensibility of style and spirit partway between Aristotle and Anne Lamott, Montaigne and Mary Oliver".

The power of these essays lies in how Whyte constructs his thoughts into a narrative, using words like a knife and a paintbrush simultaneously. 



Close is what we almost always are: close to happiness, close to another, close to leaving, close to tears, close to God, close to losing faith, close to being done, close to saying something, or close to success, and even, with the greatest sense of satisfaction, close to giving the whole thing up.

To consciously become close is a courageous form of unilateral disarmament, a chancing of our arm and our love, a willingness to hazard our affections and an unconscious declaration that we might be equal to the inevitable loss that the vulnerability of being close will bring.


What we have named as anger on the surface is the violent outer response to our own inner powerlessness, a powerlessness connected to such a profound sense of rawness and care that it can find no proper outer body or identity or voice, or way of life to hold it. What we call anger is often simply the unwillingness to live the full measure of our fears or of our not knowing, in the face of our love for a wife, in the depth of our caring for a son, in our wanting the best, in the face of simply being alive and loving those with whom we live.

Our anger breaks to the surface most often through our feeling there is something profoundly wrong with this powerlessness and vulnerability… Anger in its pure state is the measure of the way we are implicated in the world and made vulnerable through love in all its specifics.

Popova says Whyte's reconsideration of anger does not make him an apologist for anger but rather “a peacemaker in our eternal war with its underlying vulnerability, which is essentially an eternal war with ourselves — for at its source lies our tenderest, timidest humanity. [It] calls to mind Brené Brown’s masterful and culturally necessary manifesto for vulnerability —  ‘Vulnerability,’ she wrote, ‘is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, accountability, and authenticity'."


Heartbreak is unpreventable; the natural outcome of caring for people and things over which we have no control…

Heartbreak begins the moment we are asked to let go but cannot, in other words, it colours and inhabits and magnifies each and every day; heartbreak is not a visitation, but a path that human beings follow through even the most average life.

Heartbreak is an indication of our sincerity: in a love relationship, in a life’s work, in trying to learn a musical instrument, in the attempt to shape a better more generous self. Heartbreak is the beautifully helpless side of love and affection and is [an] essence and emblem of care… Heartbreak has its own way of inhabiting time and its own beautiful and trying patience in coming and going.

It is our greatest fear. And one that we spend our lives fighting. To be hurt. Let down. Disappointed. Whyte walks with us through a door into the deep undercurrents of our inner life and reveals heartbreak as a profoundly necessary part of our journey “from here to there", a process of growth that allows us to care for, and understand, what we discover along the way — about ourselves and our relationship to others.


Naming love too early is a beautiful but harrowing human difficulty. Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery.

We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations.

Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognisable form of affection.

Words allow us to make sense of the world, and Whyte shows us how the dialogue between our inner and outer worlds is a continuous dialogue between reality and illusion.

We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling. In many ways, love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.

I haven't finished Consolations yet. I keep it for when I walk so the words can cascade through my mind as they need to. Every essay is a recalibration of the heart and a revelation about the infinite possibilities of the human spirit.

As soon as I receive the paper version of this book, it will find a place on my bedside table alongside Mary Oliver's Devotions.

* Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words costs R239 at Takealot.

♦ VWB ♦

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