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Rilke on How Our Sorrows Can Be Used as Triumphs

Rainer Maria Rilke

“The impediment to action advances action,” said the great Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

And yet, this way of living proves to enormously difficult. We tend to frame our problems into tightly constrained boxes, magnifying the problem and thus limiting our range of options. We trap ourselves before giving ourselves a chance.

What we have failed to teach in traditional education and to recognize as a culture at large is that our sorrows and personal obstacles are great catalysts for transformation—they are, indeed, the very fabric of art, beauty, success, and stories worth telling. We rarely ask ourselves, What would a life be without heartbreaks, roadblocks, or failure? 

Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, beautifully addresses how the sorrows in our lives are the stepping stones for personal triumph and transformation, whether conscious or not:

“I believe that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralyzing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered into our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.”

As the essayist Montaigne once wrote, “It is not enough to recount experiences; they must be weighed and sorted; they must be digested and distilled, so that they may yield the reasonings and conclusions they contain.” We recount experiences, weigh and sort them, by being in solitude—that painful moment in our lives where we see ourselves, even just for a moment, for who we are.
Solitude requires quieting the external environment and turning up the volume internally in our minds. It is where clarity grows, where self-awareness is exercised, where humility arises, and ultimately where transformation begins.
Rilke continues:

“The more still, more patient and more open we are when we are sad, so much the deeper and so much the more unswervingly does the new go into us, so much the better do we make it ours, so much the more will it be our destiny, and when on some later day it “happens” (that is, steps forth out of us to others), we shall feel in our inmost selves akin and near to it. And that is necessary. It is necessary — and toward this our development will move gradually — that nothing strange should befall us, but only that which has long belonged to us.”

Whenever you feel heartbreak, sorrow, pain, failure, stop your mind from inflicting blame on yourself or those around you. Instead, say nothing. Focus inward on unraveling this obstacle. Look at the event for what it is and what it did to you, and then figure out how this pain or sorrow can be used to your advantage.

What can you learn? If this were to happen again (it will), how can you be poised and calm? How will this make you better?

Letters to a Young Poet is a fascinating read in its entirety. It’s filled with wisdom on art, what it means to be an artist, on love, criticism, and more. Rilke’s prose is concise yet beautiful; it speaks to the human spirit, acknowledging the realities of our existence, while also applying a balm that stings at first but cools thereafter.