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10 Things I Learned from Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke and Ernie

I bet when Rilke answered that first letter from Franz Xaver Kappus back in 1903, he had no idea he’d made the first crucial step from poet to oracle. Now, more than 100 years later, the advice he doled out in the messages collected in Letters to a Young Poet have inspired everyone from W.H. Auden to Lady Gaga.  In honor of his birthday, I’ve pulled together my favorite 10 bits of Rilke-brilliance.

1.  Be quiet, dammit.

     “What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours…”

Some people spend a lifetime trying to avoid what’s going on in their own head. There have been times when I hid behind the noise to avoid dealing with things, but Rilke reminds me that it’s so much braver to confront yourself, and it’s the only real way to move forward.

2.  Don’t hide behind irony (I’m looking at you, hipsters).

     “Irony: Don’t let yourself be controlled by it, especially during uncreative moments…Search into the depths of Things: there, irony never descends.”

Here’s the thing, our culture’s obsession with irony is lazy, really, and a waste of time. I love Daria just as much as the next ’90’s teen, but I’m getting sick of wading through the mire of humor designed solely to obfuscate someone’s actual feelings. That’s not to say that I won’t get ironic at some point in this post. I probably will.

3.  Only boring people get bored.

     “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it, blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty or poor, indifferent place.”

 I mean, I think Rilke sums it up pretty nicely, but if you need further prodding, look, as you always should, to Louis C.K.

4.  Find an author who speaks to you, and keep him/her with you always.

     “Live for a while in these books, learn from them what you feel is worth learning, but most of all love them. This love will be returned to you thousands upon thousands of times, whatever your life may become—it will, I am sure, go through the whole fabric of your becoming, as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys.”

Rilke had Jens Peter Jacobsen. I have Jim Harrison and M.F.K. Fisher. Tolstoy sometimes. I take them with me if I’m going to be anywhere longer than a day, as there isn’t a single experience that isn’t made brighter and clearer by their point of view.  Music has similar capabilities, which we’ll get to later, as does looking at pictures of my cat. I think we can all agree on that.

5.  Look at a Rodin. In person. Find one and just look at it.

     “…August Rodin, the sculptor, who is without peer among all artists who are alive today”

Okay. So maybe this one doesn’t allow for much interpretation. I don’t care. Rilke and I share this particular affinity, and that’s good enough for me. Rilke has the excuse of having served Rodin as a private secretary. I don’t, all I know I that when I look at one my blood gets all fizzy.

6.  Love what you love, and make no apologies.

     “Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort…Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened.”

See how I didn’t apologize for the Rodin obsession? No, but seriously, life is just too damn short not to spend it doing, looking at, appreciating what you love, and there’s even less time for making excuses for it.  You love reality TV? Nene Leakes makes ya happy? Fine! I, personally, get teased quite a bit for my Hercule Poirot and Wilke Collins obsessions.  Stuffy British (and Belgian!) detectives are just my jam, man. Sorry, not sorry.

7.  Live the questions.

     “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and 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. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

Probably the best advice any twenty-something going through a quarter-life crisis (ehem) can receive.

8.  Find and nurture your inner child.

     “Why should you want to give up a child’s wise not-understanding in exchange for defensiveness and scorn, since not-understanding is, after all, a way of being alone, whereas defensiveness and scorn are a participation in precisely what, by these means, you want to separate yourself from.”

Just like you shouldn’t hide behind irony, you shouldn’t hide behind bitterness either. It can be tricky, and Lord knows I fail at it, but I make an attempt to approach each day with the ardent enthusiasm of a precocious tyke. And then, you know, if that doesn’t work, there’s always wine.

9.  Find someone who understands you, and cherish them.

     “You see: I have copied out your sonnet, because I found that it is lovely and simple and born in the shape that it moves in with such quiet decorum. It is the best poem of yours that you have let me read. And now I am giving you this copy because I know that it is important and full of new experience to rediscover a work of one’s own in someone else’s handwriting.”

All good love strives to reflect back the very best of us. If you’ve got someone in your life that challenges you, works for you, and celebrates your successes, make sure that you always work to be deserving of them, and be thankful for them every single day.

10. You are ultimately alone. 

     “We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about this and act as if it were not true. That is all.”

Sorry to end on such a bummer. But I’ve found that when I can swallow this concept, and it’s not always, I feel pretty empowered. There’s something freeing about accepting that you are ultimately responsible for yourself, that you own it all, and that includes when you’re totally kick-ass.

Now you’re sad, maybe. I’m sorry. Listen to some George Michael and you’ll perk right back up.

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