Discover more from Letters from a Luftmensch
Go to the limits of your longing
and have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
I first encountered Rainer Maria Rilke in Homer, Alaska, an idyllic fishing town that lies at the terminus of North America’s highway system, where perennially snow-capped mountains kiss the waters of Kachemak Bay.
I had gone to Alaska to “find myself,” driven by the same force that had propelled so many to the frontier: an all-consuming yearning for a life greater than the one we were given; for a life of our own. I was approaching my final semester of college and had enrolled in a master’s degree I had little interest in, but believed to be a safe backup for a bookish student who could be wheedled into a gainful career in law. It was the season of job hunting and grad school applications, yet I found myself unable to conjure any enthusiasm. The options presented to me felt unfulfilling at best, soul-crushing at worst. What I wanted, to my frustration, remained a mystery — though I felt a constant gnawing hunger I did not know how to sate.
During the pandemic, I had spent countless afternoons rereading Thoreau and Emerson’s entreaties to live deliberately and meditating on how I could do so. My life, to that point, felt comprised more of potential than actuality; I was driven by a longing I could not yet articulate. Feeling existentially disjointed, I wanted to distance myself from the familiar to examine my life from afar, and perhaps inch closer to some inchoate truth.
So, I went in search my own Walden: a peony farm in the most remote state in the U.S. I wanted to do something that felt real and create something tangible and beautiful, far from the treadmill of empty accolade-chasing I was on.
I was seeking something that could teach me how to live; or, at the very least, orient me as I ventured forth. On my days off at the farm, I would bike down the winding hill to Homer’s charming two-by-three-block downtown strip. Mornings were spent in the library, searching for morsels of inspiration; afternoons, I lounged on the blustery shore of Kachemak Bay, devouring that day’s literary harvest.
It was in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of advice on how to live, love, and create, that I found a compass. I did not know anything about this Austrian poet, only that his words seemed to speak to my soul’s secret stirrings. That I had picked up this slim book on a whim, from a library 3,000 miles away from home, felt fated.
The book was composed of ten letters from then-twenty-seven-year-old Rilke to nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus, a cadet at a military academy. Kappus, a year younger than I at the time, had written Rilke to ask for feedback on his poetry, and input on whether he should pursue a literary career. In his introduction to the Letters, Kappus wrote: “I was not yet twenty years old and I was just on the threshold of a career which I felt to be directly opposed to my inclinations. From the author of ‘Mir zur Feier,’ if from anyone at all, I hoped for sympathetic understanding.”
I saw myself reflected in Kappus’ earnestness and trepidation, his desire to be understood by an artist he so deeply admired. And, in a way, Rilke seemed to be writing to me as well:
You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
Rilke offered us a vision of spiritual wilderness: an insistence to preserve all within us that remained untamed. He treasured our intuition and inner world even when others did not understand them, and urged us to protect them fiercely through solitude and contemplation.
Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.
Rilke presented us with a promise: that we could carve lives for ourselves in a world often hostile to nebulosity; that our ambition did not need to map to others’; that our aspirations, even if undefined, were worthy of nurturing.
I had always viewed myself as someone who felt too deeply, wanted too much, held too tightly to ideals. I saw how it pained my loved ones, who urged me to wish for less so I wouldn’t be disappointed when reality inevitably fell short.
But Rilke said the opposite. “Go to the limits of your longing,” he implored:
Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Above all, he taught me to “live the questions” within, and to “take whatever comes, with great trust.”
[H]ave 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.
The questions I am living now are more easily articulated than answered: What do I deeply, dearly want? Where does my mind drift to in the quiet hours of the day? What sinks its teeth into me late at night and refuses to be shaken loose? And what am I willing to give for it?
I’m realizing this: the first step to getting all we want in the world is allowing ourselves to want it — even if incomprehensible, even if implausible. We must open our ears to the siren song, feel deep in our bones the call of something terrifying and true, and allow ourselves to be seduced by it.
I had followed the call to Alaska, then to the Camino, which led me down a path that remains uncertain, yet feels infinitely more true. Within this incubation period, I wait, “with deep humility and patience … for the hour when a new clarity is born.”
Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.
I leave you with Rilke’s blessing, who says it much better than I:
… the wish that you may find in yourself enough patience to endure and enough simplicity to have faith; that you may gain more and more confidence in what is difficult and in your solitude among other people. And as for the rest, let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.
Be my pen pal. 💌