“Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”
When I won a prestigious poetry award in my small high school in North Carolina, my English teacher rewarded me with a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The book spoke to me in a way very few books do. And that’s quite a feat because as an English teacher, almost all books speak to me.
The ironic thing was his words provided me more lessons about life than about poetry. And I still reflect on them when I feel lost, broken, or simply “stuck.” For example, one of his statements speaks particularly loudly to me when I am at my lowest points:
“Let everything happen to you. Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”
Through the years, the wisdom in his writings has brought me serenity, given me courage, and helped me gain perspective. And today, I was especially reminded of his words. The amazing thing was it was just an ordinary day. Except that I chose that day to free myself from all my daily responsibilities and just live.
I laughed and giggled with my husband and children as we washed our one-hundred and twenty pound Great Pyrenees. I rode with my daughter on a trip to nowhere in my Jeep, top-down and the music of my thirteen-year-old blaring way too loudly into the crowded highway. And as I was driving and looking out at the sights and sounds that surrounded me, I suddenly saw life differently.
I looked beyond the sea of masks, the honking horns, and the election signs that bombarded me at every corner. And I saw beauty. Joy. Happiness that was mine to seize if only I would stop long enough to breathe it in.
That day, I did what Rilke whispered to me: “Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.”
So here are some other words of his that you may help you find light in the darkness, calm in the chaos, and the strength to change your world in spite of the fears that often hold you captive.
1. “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all, you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?”
It’s natural as human beings to run from our pain, to evade its torment by immersing ourselves in the entertainments and responsibilities of our everyday lives. And we do these things because we view our heartache in a one-dimensional fashion, assuming that its sole purpose is to hurt us.
If something has shattered our fragile sense of self, we only see the sorrow it has caused. If something threatens the comforting routines of our lives, we only see the failure or rejection that may lie in wait. So we choose to remain within the well-built walls we have erected to protect us.
We never consider the fact that perhaps we should sit side by side with our sufferings to see what they have to offer. Rilke’s message to us is that our miseries hold many lessons, but we must be brave enough to endure the agony of reflecting on them to find the truths that lie within them.
For example, we feel dissatisfaction with our bodies, so we avoid mirrors and resign ourselves to the fact that we will have to endure our shattered self-esteem. We learn to quickly choke down the cruel and insensitive comments of others so that we don’t taste the bitterness of their words.
We feel restlessness or resentment in our relationship, so we avoid our partners or immerse ourselves in our work, swallowing our discontent and concluding that confronting our partner or our feelings will only make matters worse.
We never look at the pages of our pain and say, “What lesson is the anguish trying to teach me? Is it trying to move me to action? Is it urging me to find ways to conquer my weaknesses instead of running from them? Is it shouting to me that there’s a way out of this cycle of sadness? Is it warning me that unless I rise up against the fears and failures that hold me back, I will never have the life I truly want to live or be the person I truly want to become?
Rilke says to let the pain do its work. See the questions it can answer and the solutions it may offer. Let it transform you and open your eyes to the personal growth it can bring.
2. “If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches.”
Each day is a gift that has been denied to many others. Yet we still wake up dreading the day ahead of us, anticipating the stress and chaos it will impose instead of the beauty it can bring us.
Rilke urges us to be aware of the wealth of blessings in our midst. A home in which we find solace and security. A child who loves us unconditionally. A friend who makes us laugh, and a partner who holds us tight at night.
The fact is we are rich simply because we are breathing. We are rich because each day brings new opportunities to feel the warmth of the sun, look upon the majesty of the moon, and ponder the glory of the natural world.
The opportunity for happiness lies all around us. We don’t need trips to exciting places. We don’t need material things such as money or luxuries. We only need to find gratitude for the people and places that bring us pleasure.
This pleasure may be a day at the park watching our children play. The enjoyment we find in a book. The laughter that comes from watching a movie with family or friends. The love that radiates from a four-legged friend. The peace found in rain pattering on a window, in the flickering flames and the tranquil popping of a fireplace, or in the simple splendor of sitting in a porch chair breathing in the scents and sights of the season.
The thing is life is what we make it. Joy is a choice, not an event that comes when it chooses. It is an event that comes when we choose it. And guess what? We don’t even have to work at it. It is already there all around us, if only we stop and look.
3. “Most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security… We, however, are not prisoners. “
We get comfortable with our relationships, our jobs, the small secure world we have created for ourselves. And it feels good, for a while. Then, instead of being happy in the safe little box we’ve climbed into, we start thinking maybe we want more.
We want to see if perhaps there are relationships that have security and passion, jobs that are financially and emotionally rewarding, and a life that is full of both tranquility and transformation.
But the only way to find the answers to these questions is to move from our “corner of the room” and our “spot near the window.”
As Rilke says, “we are not prisoners.” Unless we choose to lock ourselves in our “little box.”
We must be brave enough to seek out true happiness and make changes that ensure we will find it. We must seek out “more” to have “more.”
And though our quest may be scary, there is brilliance in boldness. A brilliance that may turn our desires into reality and make our relationships richer, our days more enchanting, and our existence more meaningful.
The bottom line:
The writings of Rilke remind me that though there will be pain in life, I can learn from it. He makes me remember there is bliss awaiting me if only I am brave enough to seek it out. He inspires me to listen to my heart and see the wonderful blessings that lie unnoticed all around me.
Through Rilke’s words, I see the changes I need to make in my life. And what changes are those?
More walks in the park with my husband. More jumps into the unknown. More staring at beautiful stars speckled across a velvet sky. And more music from my thirteen-year-old’s boy bands blowing in the wind, as my Jeep rocks with my daughter’s squeals of laughter.
Because, after all, these are the things that make life magical.