Mark Nepo on OUR ELEMENT


In Our Own Element

A fish cannot drown in water.

A bird does not fall in air.

Each creature God made

must live in its own true nature.

-Mechthild of Mageburg


Somewhere in the Middle Ages in a remote part of Germany, this introspective seer came upon the wisdom that living in our own natural element is the surest way to know the inner prosperity of health, peace, and joy. 

Her examples are striking; all we have to do is put the fish in air and the bird in water to see the dangers of being what we are not. Of course, it is very clear and obvious for both the fish and the bird where they belong. Not so for us humans. 

Part of the blessing and challenge of being human is that we must discover our own true God-given nature. This is not some noble, abstract quest, but an inner necessity. For only by living in our own element can we thrive without anxiety. And since human beings are the only life form that can drown and still go to work, the only species that can fall from the sky and still fold laundry, it is imperative that we find that vital element that brings us alive. 

I vividly recall my struggles as a teenager when my mother wanted me to be a lawyer and my father wanted me to be an architect. Somehow I knew I needed to be a poet; something in it brought me alive. The only one to understand was my boyhood friend Vic, who in the midst of qualifying strongly for pre-med studies, realized he needed to be a florist. For something in working with flowers brought him alive. 

This is not about being a poet or a florist or a doctor or a lawyer or an architect. It is about the true vitality that waits beneath all occupations for us to tap into, if we can discover what we love. If you feel energy and excitement and a sense that life is happening for the first time, you are probably near your God-given nature. Joy in what we do is not an added feature; it is a sign of depth health. 

  • Sit quietly, and inhale your God-given nature. It is as near to you as air is to a bird.
  • Inhale and meditate on what you must be involved in to feel your own true nature.
  • Regardless of the job you're in, how can you be more completely who you are in a daily way?
  • As you move through your day, involve yourself in one gesture of vitality that puts you in touch with your own true nature."