let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant, let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn't I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our wnter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.
- RM Rilke, "The Tenth Elegy," Duino Elegies
* * *
Much of what derails us, derails our spirit, derails the lives we are living is a refusal to welcome the difficult, the painful. We seek to avoid pain the way a germaphobe sanitizes his hands: ceaselessly, fearfully, trapped by the realization that life cannot be controlled, tamed or made to heel. This lack of control brings fear and a quashing of the spirit that wants to move, that wants to dare the experience of being alive to see what it might reveal. It is foundational to me that this spirit exists in all things. It is the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. It is imminent, ever-present, at hand. Without this spirit, without being awakened to it, quickened by it, our lives take on a dull luster, a flattened experience where we trade beauty for the pleasant and filter life through a heavy brocade of fear. In doing so we mitigate some surface threats, some obvious difficulties but at the cost of never knowing, never fully knowing what our lives can be, never being lost in the loosened hair of our time.
We fear what cannot be known. We move quietly, absently into the unknown each day, hoping to make it through with as little bruising as possible. We accomplish this by not taking notice of too much: the quality of light, the shape of clouds, the homeless, the suffering across town and on the other side of the world. We work our niche. We keep the company of those most like us and we get through. Until we are stopped. Until there is no passage. Until the suffering across town comes to our address. Until the toll of indifference becomes a horror to our minds. Until such time as we lift our heads.
What then? Ill-equipped from long neglect, how are we to move into a world that has suddenly gotten very small and specific in its woundings, and at the same time impossibly large in its indifference to those wounds. Rilke writes that we not squander the hours of pain, for they are the foundation of what we will become. Instead of looking for its end, he says to kneel more deeply in front of it, for it is only a season where new life will one day emerge. He's not wrong. Just as Frankl wrote that meaning could come not only from love and work, but also from suffering, Rilke makes it difficult to pretend that there is not awe even into the most difficult and desolate places. No one wants to believe this, but somewhere in your experience, in your memory, in the collective memory of all who have lived and died is the sure knowledge this is so.
We seek ease when it is life we must pursue. Just as beauty is dangerous and pretty in not, so too awe, reverence is dangerous and unbelief is not. By unbelief I mean the refusal to see the ceaseless transformation of all things. To hold that one cannot step into the same river twice is reverence, to see only water is unbelief. Reverence is not secured in holy places, nor is it in the domain of churches, temples, stupas or mosques. It is possible to feel reverence in those places but only because it is possible to encounter it anywhere.
To stand in awe is to stand in front of a mystery larger than yourself. To revere that mystery is to acknowledge your place in it. And that makes you dangerous: in your own life and to others.
Reverence is simply a way of seeing, of not trying to control the world before you, but to be willing to be transformed by it without a promise of anything other than transformation. The full text from Heraclitus: "No man steps into the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
We think of our Self as static. That the thing we are is the thing we have always been. We are biased to confer continuity to ourselves, but not to others. This is the root of where reverence and awe is lost. If we are the same, then it is others, the world around us that is faithless. We take an antagonistic stance to our circumstances. But to break the shell of that bias, to find a way to see ourselves, our Selves, as fluid is to be restored to our lives, to the surrounding world with all its beauty and horror. Consciousness demands reverence. Again, not to any god, or faith, or politics, or economics, but the ceaseless transformations that fill every hour.
And if you are in the nights of anguish, even there, reverence for the night itself is the only way to be healed, transformed by it. It is the nature of all things to be transformed. Resisting it only sharpens the pain. And it is possible to spend the length of your life unchanging, living inside the bias of one's consistency, never touching the edge of awe. We all know people like this. Their lives empty husks of what might have been: talent wasted, love squandered - all to pretend they alone were gods unchanging.
Here's the news: the gods change with us.
* * *
May all that is unsaid in you find its voice.