“You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Courtesy of Knud Odde
I recently came across a used copy of Letters to a Young Poet, which I’ve been meaning to read for a long time now. As I was leafing through it in the book store, I noticed that there was a page number written somewhat emphatically in yellow highlighter at the top of the first page: “PAGE THIRTY-FIVE.” Naturally curious, I turned to page 35, and it was there that I found the above excerpt highlighted in yellow.
Reading it, I got goosebumps. Tears welled up in my eyes. Standing in a used book store in the middle of the day, I suddenly found myself in a state–if that makes any sense.
That passage was something I needed to read. And, for reasons I won’t go into, I needed to read it at that particular time. I didn’t know what to do with it, really–I still don’t–but I think that’s what Rilke’s saying, after all. We’re not supposed to know what to do with our sensations or experiences or doubts all the time. And that’s okay, because maybe we don’t have to. Maybe it just takes time. Maybe, as Rilke puts it, “everything is gestation and then bringing forth,” and we just have to suffer through the gestation part before we get to the bringing forth part.
I finished reading Letters yesterday, and it didn’t take long for me to see why it’s so well-loved. Rilke writes with such honesty, such kindness, offering much-needed reassurance to those of us with particularly turbulent or reflective inner lives. He acknowledges the darkness and the doubts that we as young creative types are likely to feel, but doesn’t condemn those feelings or attempt to cure them. Instead he tucks them snugly into bed with us, acknowledges them not only as natural but as beneficial, as companions, as key ingredients for our growth.
Sketch by Leonid Pasternak
For Rilke, as uncomfortable as the present might be, and as uncertain as the future always is, our experience of both is exactly what it needs to be. He writes, “the future enters into us in this way in order to transform itself in us long before it happens”–and what a difference that point of view makes. To view the future not as something external and adversarial that happens to us, but as something from inside us, something that springs from within so that no matter what it is, we might acknowledge it as being manageable, tractable–in our wheelhouse, as it were. Something we’ve been preparing for our entire lives, whether we realized it or not.
But until the future’s ready for us, what can we do? Like the excerpt says–and like some stranger somewhere highlighted in my copy years ago, perhaps thinking that someone like me might pick it up someday and read it–there’s no use trying to force the answers. All we can do is let them gestate deep inside while we struggle along with the questions.
And yes, it’s going to be a struggle. But if we can appreciate the struggle for what it is, maybe even learn to love the struggle–well, that’s half the battle right there, isn’t it?
(On a final note, although I’m convinced I would likely have come up with it myself eventually, I’d be remiss not to give credit for the milk/Rilke pun to my pal Matt Barbot. He coined it before me, but it was just too good for me not to use. Thanks, Matt.)