Sunday, November 19, 2017

Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” Remains Transcendent

MEG SMITH ’21

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

We are taught to fear that which is different from us and we judge and divide ourselves in order to make sense of the world. This is natural, and it is beautiful because it is ours as humans. It becomes ugly when discernment and observation become perverted into fear,hatred, and ignorance. It is so easy to forget that we are all kin and that our differences are what unite us. It is so easy to say this truth, and so hard to remember to live it.

Rilke speaks of a love that is quiet, that is watching, listening, observing, gestating. Love is boundless and in everything there is wonder, there is beauty, and there is something to be learned. When we are quiet and still, when we see people as immense and beautiful beings, when we sense the strangeness and alienating beauty of everything around us, when we are awed by the ordinary, we can start to feel the most beautiful love that we can feel. This love should fall before all else, before all other superficial biases and fears, and out of it arises all joys and pleasures.
In this love, I see the revolution.

We live in a world where we have become blinded to the joy in everyday things and the beauty of all people. Our blindness has become fear and our fear has become hatred and violence. My heart breaks every day when people are cruel to each other: when we deny each other our humanity, when we treat each other without dignity. We rape, maim, and kill other human beings, and we turn a blind eye when we are too afraid of the truth to act. We lie to each other when we are too afraid to face the truth: we say that we are not the problem, that the problem is the people who raise their voices against violence that we have stopped seeing to be wrong. We say that other people are ones who perpetrate violence and who look away when they could perhaps help, not us. Not our friends, and not the people on our campus. And finally, when we admit that we did wrong, we shirk responsibility by saying that it was just how we were raised, that society is to blame.

Perhaps that last bit is somewhat true. We are raised to turn away from that which scares us in an attempt to circumvent violent ignorance. We do not talk about racism because we might offend someone. We do not mention sexual violence because it might scare someone. We do not talk about the beauty in ordinary things and the horrors we sometimes live through because feeling large is scary. We must not turn away from our own actions. We must confront what we see as wrong, even if it scares us.

Once we recognize our own wrongdoing, however, we feel broken, like bad people. We can read the news and lose hope, curl up and snuggle into a warm nest of despair and pessimism. After confronting that which is difficult and inhumane, we must have a way to rebuild ourselves and our worldview so that we do not repeat our mistakes. Enter Rilke’s advice on loving that which is not in our own forms.

“But what can I do?” you may ask. Listen. Be quiet. Be still. Hear what others have to say. Take in the world with your own eyes. See the world like you are a kind and curious child. You will encounter beautiful and terrible things. When you open yourself to learning new things, and open yourself to feeling both love and despair, it will be easier for you to act without intentionally harming other people. This love you may discover for the world around you is radical and powerful. Do not be afraid of it. Feel it. Love other people as human beings. Do not shy away from curiosity about others’ identities and experiences. Ask questions, as long as you come with kind intentions. Listen up when people discuss the ugliness of what they experience in everyday life, and do not pretend to not see when the people around you act cruelly. Likewise, do not be afraid if you begin to love something or someone that is different from you. Admire the beauty of the unfamiliar and act lovingly towards all things. If you see even one aspect of the world in a new light today, good. If you see an opportunity to do something kind or confront an injustice and you take that opportunity, you have made the world a better place. You are capable of great things. You are an individual that thinks, and feels, and acts, and that is beautiful. Do not forget that. You have great power to change the world into the place of love and joy that it deserves to be.

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