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Rainer Maria Rilke

How to Evolve from Sadness


Rainer Maria Rilke explored the possible transformations that sadness can trigger in human beings.

Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart and try to love the question.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis,” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke to young Franz Xaver Kappus, with whom he maintained an epistolary correspondence for over five years. “Because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us.”

In almost every single one of his letters, which beyond being meant for soldier Kappus allude to all of us in a profound way, Rilke analyzes the topic of sadness and the loneliness that necessarily comes with it. In his “VIII” letter there is a rich cumulus of meditations that are worth considering when feeling clouded by the universal ghost of melancholy. Comparing emotions to architecture, or to a crossroad, for instance, is a good way of understanding them. When we feel a great sadness entering us, we are transformed as a house is transformed when a guest crosses its threshold. “And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad”, Rilke wrote.

The more quiet, patient and sincere we are in our sadness, the more profoundly and definitely we will be impacted by the new. By truly making it our own and truly accepting it, it becomes our destiny.

According to the poet, the importance of solitude lies in the fact that we can neither choose it nor refuse it. We are solitary, he stresses. However, we are all capable of deluding ourselves into thinking that we are not: we lie to ourselves because we are afraid of feeling and getting lost in the infrastructural shifting that surrounds us. “It will, of course, make us dizzy; for all points that our eyes used to rest on are taken away from us, there is no longer anything near us, and everything far away is infinitely far.”

This is the transformed architecture we mentioned before. Solitude is such a great alteration that it materializes unto the physical world. Walls can move away from us until we feel that we are not even there. And no matter how much time we spend in a room, how many things we place inside it, we can never fill it, or fully inhabit it.

He would feel he was falling or think he was being catapulted out into space or exploded into a thousand pieces: what a colossal lie his brain would have to invent in order to catch up with and explain the situation of his senses. That is how all distances, all measures, change for the person who becomes solitary; many of these changes occur suddenly and then, as with the man on the mountaintop, unusual fantasies and strange feelings arise, which seem to grow out beyond all that is bearable.

Many of the transformations referred to by Rilke are sudden and rough, and therefore we encounter unexpected fears, strange feelings that seem to surpass what is humanly bearable. “But it is necessary”, he asserts, “that we also live this. We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can”.

In his letter, he emphasizes that the fact that when it comes to dealing with inexplicable or abstract things, such as solitude, human cowardice has profoundly damaged the world. In other words, it has slowed down our evolutionary process, circumscribing human relations.

For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we do not think we can deal with.

What remains particularly useful of this letter is the proposal that sadness can be conceived as something that possesses us and therefore must be received as if it were a guest.

If sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. 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. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?

Rilke, like Borges, Cavafis and many others, categorically states that courage is the only thing that truly matters. “We must accept our reality as vastly as we possibly can; everything, even the unprecedented, must be possible within it. 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”.

The entire collection of his letters is an arsenal of wisdom that, by speaking to our innermost “human” emotions, was written for every single one of us, so that we can ponder, and perhaps even change our perspective on things. But Rilke himself asserted to remind us that “nobody can give you advice and help you, nobody. There is only one path. Go towards yourself.”

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