“Wait without hope,” modernist poet T.S. Eliot advised in 1941. Mr. Eliot seems rather grim considering he wrote these words during history’s deadliest war: wait…without hope? Where was the rousing patriotism and “never give in” determination of Winston Churchill?
Though it might seem defeatist to “wait without hope,” waiting isn’t pessimistic— it’s practical. There are times in life— when you lose your life savings, when your mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer, when your husband of twenty years leaves you— when waiting is all you can do.
No book is a more comforting companion in despairing times than Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke’s life-affirming letters to budding young poet, Franz Kappus. Suffering his own dark season of the soul, Kappus wrote seeking counsel. When we are in that morose and melancholy place, when the debilitating drizzle of depression drowns our will to go on, what— he wondered— did it take to live through the horror and the hopelessness to the other side, to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable darkness and find one small slant of light?
For Rilke, the answer was simple: have faith. We have to trust that— no matter how devastating the dark of winter— spring always arrives. If we simply wait, frost will melt, grass will grow, flowers will bloom. Or as Rilke so beautifully writes:
“You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall.”
When we feel forsaken in the desolation of the desert, what does it take to go on? Anne Lamott, author of the much beloved classic Bird by Bird, contends we survive the wilderness by seeking shelter from the sweltering heat and searching for sources of water. That means finding comfort in the small things: a cup of chamomile tea, a morning stroll through a picturesque landscape or charming park. Poet of politics Rebecca Solnit urges us to simply do what we can. Rilke offers a similar suggestion. When Mr. Kappus confides he’s lonely and despondent, Rilke tells him to be kind with himself. Like a patient who has fallen ill, he needs to be nursed back to health:
“In you, dear Mr. Kappus, so much is happening now; you must be patient like someone who is sick, and confident like someone who is recovering; for perhaps you are both. And more: you are also the doctor, who has to watch over himself. But in every sickness there are many days when the doctor can do nothing but wait. And that is what you, insofar as you are your own doctor, must now do, more than anything else.”
Want more stirring wisdom to set your soul aloft? Read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist, the importance of patience to creative work, and the only courage required of us.