Rilke on the Only Courage Required of Us

What is courage?  For most of us, the word conjures images of valiant knights slaying dragons.  Courage— we believe— involves physical danger.

But courage, a derivative of the Old French “corage” meaning “heart,” rarely requires we put ourselves in peril.  Today our day-to-day lives don’t involve dramatic romances and epic battles.  In the modern world, our struggle is internal.  Rather than fight dragons or conquer faraway kingdoms, we face a more difficult task: mastering ourselves.

rilke & tree

In his unparalleled Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke redefines what it means to be courageous.  Courage isn’t solemn soldiers marching off to battle or noble knights jousting in a tournament, nor is it a grand display of masculine machismo or physical prowess— it’s the ability to meet the unfamiliar and unfathomable.

Why do people stay in loveless marriages— or worse— with cruel partners who mistreat them?  Why do millions stay in jobs they dislike and cities they loathe?

Because no fear is more fundamental to the human condition than fear of the unknown.  Moving to a new city, getting a new job, ending a relationship, even one that’s tumultuous and dysfunctional, demands we leave behind all we know.  If we move, we’ll have to say goodbye to our much-loved coffee shop and corner bistro— not to mention learn to navigate the labyrinth of numbered streets in a different concrete jungle.  If we leave our marriage, we’ll have to rebuild our lives…alone.  Too terrified to take a risk without knowing the outcome (what will happen if we get a divorce?  where will we live?  how will we manage on our own?  will we ever find love again or will we be doomed to eternally wander the planet alone?), we stay in the same city with the same lover.  After all, our city may be dull and our husband may have an awful temper but at least they’re familiar.  

But for Rilke, what separates the courageous from the cowardly is a willingness to leap into the unknown:

“This is in the end the only kind of courage that is required of us: the courage to face the strangest, most unusual, most inexplicable experiences that can meet us.”

In a metaphor of startling beauty, Rilke suggests that though the human experience encompasses a range of emotions— the breathtaking heights of bliss and the devastating depths of despair— many of us refuse to voyage beyond our safe, familiar corner of the world.  But to be dauntless, we must dare to explore the dark, at times distressing, dungeons of our souls:

“But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.  For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that 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.  And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.”

woman in the interior

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tired together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other?” the great German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche once wondered.  Poet and painter Kahlil Gibran agreed that pain was inseparable from pleasure; to know love, you must know loss, to know joy, you must know sorrow.

If the beauty and wretchedness of life are two corresponding, if opposite, halves of the same whole, we must embrace— rather than run from— what is difficult.  Losing a loved one, being rejected for a job: the toughest experiences have the greatest to teach us.  A messy breakup, a demanding boss, a roommate who’s an inconsiderate slob challenge us to be braver and bolder versions of ourselves:

“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.  How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment 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.”

Letters to a Young Poet is a gem of wisdom that will inspire you to follow the beckoning of your muse.  If you want more indispensable writing wisdom, rejoice in Brenda Ueland’s timeless If You Want to Write, which gave us art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  Feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of your next project?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments— just one of many soul-sustaining lessons from Bird by Bird, her much-beloved instruction manual for writing and for life.  Struggling to edit your work?  Revisit Annie Dillard on maintaining objectivity and having the courage to cut, an excerpt from her exquisite, emboldening memoir The Writing Life.

Rilke on the Importance of Patience to Creative Work

Is there any value we so underrate as patience?  In our accelerated age of bullet trains andRilke & Moscow high speed internet, we demand instant gratification.  The slightest delays trigger head-splitting frustration.  If our friend is five minutes late for coffee or, god forbid, our web browser takes more than a split second, we feel an exasperation far out of proportion to the event.  This need for speed doesn’t just apply to petty things like coffee dates and internet connections.  We expect the big things— a fulfilling career, a loving, long-term relationship— to be delivered to our doorstep with the swiftness of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  When we have to devote more time and effort to our dreams than we originally anticipated, we get discouraged and want to give up.  Why after an entire month of dating have we not met that special someone?  We’ve sifted through countless lame pick-up lines on OkCupid, suffered hours of strained conversation over fettuccine and red wine…shouldn’t we have found the “one” by now?  We forget that in the face of eternity a mere 3o days is laughably minuscule.

“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” the wise Maria Popova once wrote.  No one needs to be reminded of this more than artists.  If we labor for years putting pen to paper and never win acclaim, we begin to wonder: why write at all?  why dedicate endless hours to writing a book— or composing a poem or molding a sculpture— if we never publish our work or win a Pulitzer?  What if we work and work and work and never win the recognition we so desperately desire?  What if we die penniless in a gutter like Edgar Allan Poe or in shameful obscurity like Vincent Van Gogh?

As artists, we tend to measure our creativity by a clock.  By 30, we resolve, we’ll have written the great American novel; by 40, we’ll have secured our place in literary history among giants like Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  Our dreams sparkle with the grandiosity of youth.  But when we get older and fail to realize these lovely— if unrealistic— ambitions, we want to throw away our notebooks.  Why haven’t we landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list or won a Man Booker?  Shouldn’t we be further along by now? 

rilke tree

In his profoundly wise and tenderly beautiful Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke argues that if we want to be artists, we have to relinquish our need for reward.  When budding young poet Franz Kappus writes to him seeking counsel, Rilke tells him to stop measuring his progress in earthly time.  Rather than demand his life unfold according to some rigid timeline, he should be patient and have faith: all the days spent devotedly writing at his desk, all the hours spent pouring over other people’s poetry would one day add up to something.  The artist doesn’t insist that he attain certain things by certain dates— he simply creates.  As Rilke writes, 

“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing.  Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come.  It does come.  But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast.  I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

For more from Letters to a Young Poet, read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist.  If you want more exquisitely written writing advice, revisit Brenda Ueland on art as infectionwhy Van Gogh painted irises and night skiesthe qualities of good writingthe importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want more insight into the writing life, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne SextonMaya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.

Rilke on How to Know You’re an Artist

Rilke & MoscowHow can you know you’re an artist?  In the most literal sense, an artist is one who has artistic talent.  Those gifted with the ability to write and paint and draw are obviously artists.  But do all artists share a common psychological makeup?  Do they possess something the rest of us don’t— receptive minds, attentive eyes, and sensitive hearts?  Is there any truth to the myth that to create is to suffer?  must artists undergo a lifetime of agony for their art?  Is the artist always a tragic, tormented figure?  a Plath with her head in the oven or an alcoholic Fitzgerald? 

No one is more tortured by this question than those who aspire to make art.  In what is perhaps the loveliest book ever written about writing, Letters to a Young Poet, budding young poet Franz Kappus seeks the counsel of the great Rainer Maria Rilke.  How, he wondered, could he know he was meant to be a writer?  Like many aspiring artists, Kappus wanted validation: validation of his work, validation of his talent.  Though over the course of their decade-long correspondence Rilke never confirmed his protege was an “artist” (I doubt the always humble German poet would imagine himself qualified to either grant or deny someone such a title), he did challenge Kappus to uncover answers for himself.  How could Kappus know he was meant to put pen to paper?  In a passage of elevating beauty and emboldening encouragement, Rilke asserts a writer is simply someone who must write:

“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.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this strong, solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

In our carrots-and-sticks culture, we’re driven by rewards: we work hard because we want to climb the corporate ladder and one day have a corner office; we diligently study Keats and Shelley— not because we genuinely care about Romantic poetry— but because we want an “A” in our survey literature course.  But such extrinsic motivation has no place in art.  Being an artist isn’t a job or career— it’s a calling, a fate bestowed upon us by the universe.  If we find, as Kappus did, that we must create, we have an obligation to honor our gifts— even if our book never makes the New York Times bestseller list.  “No one becomes an artist unless they have to,” the beautiful but murderous poet Ingrid reminds her daughter in the haunting White Oleander.  Or as Rilke would say, being an artist is a cross a select few must bear:

“Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist.  Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from the outside.”

Letters to a Young Poet has inspired generations of artists and will continue to inspire generations more.  If you want more stirring words to set your soul alight, delight in the free-spirited Brenda Ueland on art as infection, why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine.  If you want advice from more modern literary lights, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates.  Long to add still more tools to your warehouse of writing wisdom?  Visit Ernest Hemingway on the secret of seduction, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of a recurring image.