On Love, Fear, and Trust: Lessons from Rilke

It seems I have fallen in love again. This time, the poet comes not from medieval Persia (Hafiz) or 15th century India (Kabir), but from Bohemia, Austria-Hungary, around 1875.

And apparently I’m late to the game: the whole world has fallen for Rainier Maria Rilke. But I have just recently discovered Letters to a Young Poet, and now not one but two copies of it sit on my nightstand, soaked in highlighter ink.

In this collection of letters written in response to a devoted fan and amateur poet, Rilke meditates on the gifts of patience, solitude, and quiet courage.

We have no reason to harbor any mistrust against our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

Presumably encouraging this young man out of a deep isolation and depression, Rilke urges him to remember those fairytales in which, at the very last moment, dragons are transformed into princesses:

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

This tiny volume is full of optimism. But not of the naive variety. Rilke encourages a kind of optimism that requires digging deep into the recesses of our strength and humanity, to trust – indeed to prefer – the difficulty inherent in spiritual-emotional growth.

We must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything.

There is advice in here on romance and soul-relationships, on love that is mature and life-giving. There are odes and homages to solitude: a solid case for spending time alone with one’s feelings and thoughts. There is so much here to share; before long I will be transcribing the entirety of the book for you.

Instead, I’ll just link you to the book so you can read it yourself, and I’ll leave you with this, my favorite segment of his fourth letter, where he calls out directly to people like me – those who are uncomfortable with not-knowing, who impatiently search for answers and conclusions, and who desperately suffer the need to figure things out.

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart. Try to love the lessons themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything.

Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything.

Put this way, I think I can be persuaded to give mystery a try.

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