Every Atom | No. 13

John A. Johnson

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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A study I conducted on the beneficial impact of poetry on incarcerated criminals provided the first hint that Walt Whitman might have been a positive psychologist whose words could better the human condition (Johnson and Worley). Presciently ahead of its time, “Song of Myself” embodies research findings from modern positive psychology on attitudes and habits of thought that generate human flourishing and psychological well-being, despite the inevitability of suffering and death. Timothy Miller identifies and intentionally capitalizes three such attitudes as central to increasing psychological well-being: Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude. “Song of Myself” is absolutely awash with examples of Compassion, Attention, and Gratitude. Space limitations allow presentation of only a tiny fraction of them.


Compassion in Miller's (93) sense is a detached understanding of how others are just like us. Compassion is extended to everyone, not just the downtrodden. Compassion for our antagonists gives us the serenity to act constructively.


Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,

Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.



What Miller (129) calls Attention involves being mindful of the present moment and avoiding pointless value judgments.


There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now;

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.



What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?

Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me . . . . I stand indifferent,

My gait is no faultfinder's or rejecter's gait,

I moisten the roots of all that has grown.



Finally, Miller's (163) Gratitude is practiced for absolutely every experience in life (including death), not just for gifts designed to make us happy. One can be grateful for everything after realizing that boundaries defined by space and time are arbitrary. By dissolving these boundaries and achieving a mystical sense of oneness with the universe, we can see ourselves in all that was, is, and shall be. Everything is good and beautiful.



I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, 

And the tree-toad is a chef-d'ouvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,

And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer's girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.


Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?

I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it


I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-washed babe . . . . and am not contained between my hat and boots,

And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and every one good,

The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.

I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,

I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;

They do not know how immortal, but I know.


Works Cited

Johnson, John A. and Lloyd D. Worley. "Criminals' Responses to Religious Themes in Whitman's Poetry." Crime, Values, and Religion, edited by James M. Day and William S. Laufer, Ablex, 1987, pp. 133-151

Miller, Timothy. How to Want What You Have: Discovering the Magic and Grandeur of Ordinary Existence. Henry Holt, 1995.


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John A. Johnson is professor emeritus of psychology at the Pennsylvania State University. His chapter, “Criminals’ Responses to Religious Themes in Whitman’s poetry,” was featured by the New York Times and CBS Radio. He is co-author of a book published by Palgrave, Graphing Jane Austin: The Evolutionary Basis for Literary Meaning.


Cover art by J. D. Schraffenberger