Death brings its own surprises, not always pleasant. A recent bereavement has brought with it a series of unfortunate consequences. A promised legacy has not materialised and this creates unbearable internal tensions of guilt, rage and abandonment.
Long before modern psychology awakened us to our own interior furniture, Rainier Maria Rilke wrote on how great sadnesses transform us and bring us closer to ourselves. Sadness has a way of penetrating to the bottom of the glass, to reach into and beyond comfort zones, shaking them. He writes “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” We are creatures of order. Satisfaction is only guaranteed when the explanations are neatly bookmatched surrounding the facts and corralling them all into their proper places. Loose ends are disturbing.
Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet is among those very few texts that can be read as if they carry an almost scriptural authority. In the century since its publication, his reflections and encouragement have proven timeless and timely, in countless human lives – a wealth of enduring ideas. Long before modern psychologists extolled what some call the ‘creative benefits of fertile solitude’, Rilke explored the value of melancholy as a clarifying and focusing force for our own interior lives. He turns his gaze to the vast swaths of life we spend completely opaque to ourselves, the Johari window of unknown unknowns, and writes to a young aspiring poet over a century ago with piercing insight:
“You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed. And you say that even this passing was hard for you and put you out of sorts. But, please, consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the centre of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? … Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.
Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralysing 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 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.”
When the moon crumbles and the stars fall like sparks, injustice, breathed in like foul air, clogs our soul and blisters its walls with its harsh, unreasoning burning. Only time alone will assuage the scorching and calamity.