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The Only Kind of Courage That is Required of Us
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
It’s no exaggeration to say that the following passage from Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke has had a significant impact on me and likely changed the course of my life in a very real way.
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 fact that people have in this sense been cowardly has done infinite harm to life; the experiences that are called “apparitions,” the whole so-called “spirit world,” death, all these Things that are so closely related to us, have through our daily defensiveness been so entirely pushed out of life that the senses with which we might have been able to grasp them have atrophied.
To say nothing of God. But the fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the reality of the individual; it has also narrowed the relationship between one human being and another, which has as it were been lifted out of the riverbed of infinite possibilities and set down in a fallow place on the bank, where nothing happens.
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 don’t think we can deal with. 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.
- Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
I must have read these words over a decade ago now and, since then, I’ve also read the entirety of Letters to a Young Poet, a collection of letters Rilke exchanged with 19-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus, which I highly recommend. The letters are full of Rilke’s insights, as a poet, into love, truth, feeling, and life itself, and you’ll find many passages as inspiring as the one above.
However, none stuck with me and kept rattling around in my brain in quite the same way as this quote has all this time. Something about it appealed to me immensely, and it has greatly impacted my approach to and relationships with other people. I don’t want my relationships to be impoverished, I went them to be alive—I want to be open to anything, no matter how inexplicable.
I think this also reflects my natural distaste for identity politics. It narrows the possibilities of human relationships immensely by slotting everyone into their identity categories, leaving only unspeakable monotony and no space where anything new can actually happen. It represents a complete flattening of the individual, and it is the coward’s way of dealing with other human beings. Identity politics keeps us stuck on the banks, scared of the river with no neat boxes to keep our relationships nice and controlled.
Living according to this quote is easier said than done, of course. Indolence is always trying to creep in. But it is something I try to remember when faced with challenges, decisions, and considerations of everyday life.
Be ready for everything.
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