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.
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.”
“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 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. 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.