Seven years ago, a beloved friend gave me a copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” The short book collects Rilke’s advice to an acquaintance, a 19-year-old would-be artist overwhelmed by self-doubt, artistic confusion and inchoate longings for greatness. Speaking from his own mistakes, Rilke counsels patience with yourself, solitude and listening to your own heart rather than the demands of the market.
I think my friend gave me the book as a gentle way of communicating the same messages to me. I was burdened by the same anxieties as the young poet: that I would never be satisfied with others, that I would never live up to a talent. But although the letters were aimed at me, I didn’t get them at all. There were some beautiful phrases in there, but they didn’t land. I left the book to gather dust at the bottom of that tucked-away bookshelf where you keep books you never intend to read again.
Seven years later, a few days ago, packing to move, I found it again. It was a completely different book; as if it had secretly rewritten itself in the dust and the quiet of the years. I wrote down almost every line in my notebook. They spoke to me as eerily as if a man who knew me personally had written them.
The thing is, in the intervening years, I had made all the mistakes Rilke ardently warns the young poet against: endlessly seeking external advice, abandoning ship when something got really difficult, losing faith. I could understand the letters precisely because I was no longer the person to whom they had been so lovingly directed, still able to take turns to avoid these bitter shoals. I had become, rather, a lesser inductee to Rilke’s circle, one of those who look back and imagine they understand all they could have done differently.
Why is it that we so often cannot learn from the experiences of our elders? So many pieces of fantastic counsel we receive just slide right off of us when we are young. I don’t think it’s that we rebelliously choose to ignore the advice and pin shut our eyes. We’re just as blind as cave-fish, who have no eyes — yet — to see what’s in front of us. From the start, I wanted to understand Rilke’s letters; he was one of my favorite poets. But I couldn’t.
The answer is embedded in “Letters to a Young Poet.” Between his exhortations to the young poet, he occasionally acknowledges the mysteriously embodied nature of life — and the unfathomable way our mistakes work on us. “Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe,” he writes. We cannot learn life by hearing about it, in other words. (“I cannot prove it,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote. “But I can do more than that. I can see it.”) We can only understand life ex-post-facto, by moving within it.
As for doubts and anxieties, at the end of one letter Rilke wonders: “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any depression, any misery, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?” He suggests that, during the poet’s periods of uneasy floundering, “perhaps many things inside you have been transformed. Perhaps somewhere, deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes.”
When we seek to save those younger than us from what we believe were our missteps, do we really have any idea what those so-called missteps made of us? Could we have gone through life without them? Would we have wanted to? Might it take huge mistakes to make a Rilke?
Since we cannot go back, I guess we have to learn to love our mistakes with the same kind of appreciation with which some people love God. Loving them comprises a respect for their simultaneous power over our present and their mystery. For they have been our unseen creators: We may never totally understand their purposes, yet we must make them the objects of our total faith.