This is topic #3 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honorable (honest) relationships, #2 was about resisting absentminded busyness (experience what is actually happening), and this one is about loving the questions, taking a close read of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. If you aren’t already familiar with Rilke’s poetry, here’s a great starting place.
To begin, here’s the summary on the Brain Pickings post:
“In one of the most potent letters, he writes:
I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very 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.
If you aren’t familiar with this short book, Franz Xaver Kappus, a 19-year-old officer cadet at the Theresian Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt, wrote Rilke these 10 letters between 1902 and 1908 seeking his advice as to the quality of his poetry, and his help in deciding between a literary career or a career as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Kappus compiled and published the letters in 1929, three years after Rilke’s death from leukemia. The first letter just asked Rilke’s opinion of the quality of his poetry, but a correspondence developed and Rilke took on the role of lecturing elder, kind of, telling Kappus how to live his life. The specific letter referenced in the Brain Pickings post was written on July 16, 1903. (Here is the pdf file of the whole short book I found online, if you want it; this letter begins on p13.)
Actually, for the first time I would have to agree with her summary, if only because it’s a short letter and this is its primary point. It’s a point Rilke makes again and again in other letters, though, in slightly different ways. He writes at length about the importance of patience, not just for the purpose of writing poetry but in a bigger way, to discover your own depths and learn what you think and desire, who you are. With this kind of patience, he believes you should not race to find concrete answers, and in fact you should not even have concrete answers as a goal in any way. It’s the openness of the question itself that matters; it’s the realization that the question itself is the point, not its answer; it’s the understanding that one must live those questions to find their answers. It’s not just a cerebral exercise.
What does this mean, really? I like the sound of it and agree in the abstract, but to do something with it I need to bring it into my own real life and not just let it hang in a handwaving kind of way. So I start with a basic question:
- Who am I? AH, OK, I get it. In my life I have raced toward concrete answers again and again. This is who I am. No, this. Wait, yeah, that was right. Well, kind of. OK, this is who I am. I am this and definitely not that. Well, sometimes I am. Actually, I’ve been very wrong about myself all along! (That list of statements characterizes at least a quarter of my blog posts over the years.) Assuming there exists a concrete answer or set of answers relies on an assumption that ‘who I am’ is unchanging and entirely knowable, and consistent across time and space. Of course none of that is wholly true! I’d like to say that there are essential aspects of myself that are unchanging and entirely knowable and consistent across time and space, but as I sit and think about that, I can’t find a single one. So to give up on the answer and to love and live the question is to embrace a spirit of self-compassion and curiosity, I think. If I love the question ‘who am i?’ — and note that he says love the question, not ask the question — then I remain open to whatever answer emerges and grow into an ease with it, live with it. And then, I suppose, there lives his possibility of “gradually, without even noticing it, [living my] way into the answer.” One thing I love about this is that there’s a grace to it.
- What do I want to do? Loving the question means I allow myself the time and exploration to find my way to something that will be meaningful, and kind of necessarily so because I’m open along the way and don’t stop with a concrete answer that is meaningless. Right? Is that right? I think so.
Thinking about specific questions I ask myself again and again gives me a way into Rilke’s advice, and I see a way this approach goes with the Kierkegaard (#2, Resist absentminded busyness/Experience what is actually happening). Both involve a recognition of and openness to the complexity of things, the complexity of the world, the complexity of experience, the complexity of self. And not just an openness to it, but an embracing of it. Rilke adds the necessity of patience, and for me anyway, that’s a critical piece. Love the questions, yes, and be patient with that love. And that reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
In my literal-minded way, I’d only thought about those sentences in terms of interpersonal love — wife and husband, parents with children — but it goes so beautifully with Rilke’s thoughts in the way that most of the old philosophies of life say essentially the same things.
Live the questions. Love the questions. Eventually you might live your way into the answers. It’s such a different approach than my life-long approach, and I think it’s also different from the typical fast-driving, answer-demanding Western view.
So to date, I guess I’d reword the three ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about like this:
- Cultivate honest relationships
- Experience what is actually happening
- Be patient, and live and love the questions
And now I’m off to topic #4, pay attention to the world, which relies on an essay from Susan Sontag’s anthology At the Same Time. I expect dense reading, unlike the Rilke, but luckily I’m OK with that.