Containing Multitudes: Towards a Wider Sense of Self and Compassion - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities

Containing Multitudes: Towards a Wider Sense of Self and Compassion

Nicole Bauer, an assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa, discusses Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and the renewing potential of interconnectedness.

In “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman expressed in strange and wildly beautiful verse his idea of the self, one quite different from the rugged individualism usually associated with American culture, but nevertheless familiar to poets, mystics, dreamers, and artists. “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” he writes, going on to declare, “I am not contained between my hat and boots” since “[in] all people I see myself.” Perhaps the most famous line from the poem, one that many writers and artists have echoed through subsequent generations, is: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

But what did he mean? How did he see himself then? When he was thirty-five years old, Whitman had a mystical experience of some kind, an encounter with what Richard Bucke in 1901 called “cosmic consciousness.” Such experiences, reported by individuals across countless centuries and cultures, usually contain an ineffable quality, a sense of oneness with the universe or all beings, as well as love, gratitude, and joy or bliss. Paradoxically, these experiences usually occur when the individual is in solitude and often result in a greater sense of connection with and care for others. Many people who have entered such states intuitively feel a connection between the sense of oneness or dissolving of the ego, and happiness. Whitman’s friends, for example, remarked that he was someone generally content and full of interest and care for the lives of others, despite enduring his share of trouble and tragedy. In the years of the American Civil War, he feared for the safety of his brother who was fighting in the Union Army, and responded to that time of crisis and his own anxieties by moving to Washington, D.C. to work as a nurse in a hospital for the wounded.

We might see Whitman as a free spirit, a gifted, artistic soul different from ordinary people, whose mystical experiences led him to participate in the greatest national crisis of his generation not by fighting, but by caring for others. Recent research in neuroscience points to the connection between service and happiness, regardless of one’s personal background. They confirm through scientific research, facts, numbers, and statistics what Whitman’s life and poetry show us. The poet’s response to anxiety or even to a feeling of helplessness can provide a fruitful mechanism for coping as we too struggle with anxiety in uncertain times. Rather than sitting alone, reaching out to others both to ask for help and to give it is a powerful way of coping.

Whitman’s expanded sense of self led him to identify and feel at one with the world, to sense that he was both himself and every person he met, that he, and everyone else, contains multitudes. With or without such moments of transcendence, we can see from our own experiences, by testing it out in our everyday lives, that spending time and effort helping others contributes to a sense of well-being. Scientific research, conducted at places like the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education confirm that the happiest people on earth live lives full of compassion and service. These same people often report a deep sense of interconnectedness between themselves and others, as well as with the planet. We could say, and they would often agree, that their expanded sense of self leads them to feel directly invested in the welfare of others and the natural environment. If we do not see such a strict division between self and other, humans and nature, if we do not objectify or greet others different from us with fear and suspicion, if we have a sense of being part of a wider, living organism instead of seeing the earth as something separate that we act upon, we are one step closer to the renewal and recovery of a badly wounded ecosystem and an intensely divisive political atmosphere.

Or in other words, like the Beatles sang, “the love you take is equal to the love you make,” which as John Lennon later remarked, is a very “cosmic” line.