Walt Whitman is probably not the first figure that comes to mind when you think self-care. Born in 1819 in New York, the poet was arguably best known in his lifetime for penning the famous elegiac poem for President Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!”
Along the way, though, Whitman was instrumental in defining what came to be understood as the classic American way of life—a collective identity built on self-reliance and Democracy.
In his seminal collection Leaves of Grass, and particularly the epic poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman paints a picture of himself, and by extension America, built on hard work, self-reflection and forgiveness. Reading Whitman’s poetry today, one is struck by its resonance and relevance in the 21st century.
“I celebrate myself.” – “Song of Myself”
This opening line of one of Whitman’s most famous poems encapsulates the poet’s mission, and an essential facet of self-care. Whitman teaches readers that they must love themselves before they are able to even make sense of the world around them. By beginning his poem with this line, Whitman establishes a foundation of self-respect and self-love.
1. Embrace your imperfections.
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)” – “Song of Myself”
At the end of the poem, Whitman is human, which is to say imperfect. He occasionally fails to make sense. He holds opposing views which he must reconcile. But rather than diminishing his personality, it enhances it.
We too are often faced with such dilemmas of conviction. But it is important to understand that these do not detract from our personalities; instead, they strengthen them. In short, there is as much beauty in imperfection as in perfection.
2. Appreciate life’s simple pleasures.
“I have perceived that to be with those I like is enough,” – “I Sing the Body Electric”
In Whitman’s later work, he moves away from self-reflection to his relationships with others. Here there are there important lessons to learn as well.
In “I Sing the Body Electric,” Whitman relishes in the simple pleasures, like the company of his friends. For Whitman, and ideally for us too, other people are some of the most important resources for feeling good about ourselves.
3. Don’t be ashamed of your weaknesses.
“I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,” – “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing”
One of Whitman’s lesser-known poems, “I Saw in Louisiana…” provides a crucial lesson in shortcomings. Whitman can’t help but compare himself to the titular tree, and much to his dismay, comes up short. Whitman cannot be happy in the same loneliness as the tree.
But instead of letting his shortcomings get the better of him, Whitman takes from the tree a small totem—a twig both to remind him of his friends’ and his own weaknesses. The poem shows that weaknesses are not to be ashamed of or accepted blindly, but grappled with and loved.
One could fill a book with an analysis of the wisdom of Walt Whitman. His poems provide insight into more areas than self-care, for his body of work is nothing if not comprehensive. And even the better part of two centuries later, his words still ring true.