A difficult time like ours is a good time to think about how to handle “the difficult.” The German poet, Rainer Rilke, had a wonderful thought on this.
Just over a hundred years ago, Rilke exchanged some letters with an aspiring young poet. Eventually, the letters were collected and published under the title, Letters To A Young Poet. In one of the letters, Rilke wrote:
“What is required of us is that we learn to love the difficult and embrace it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us.”
Now, at first, this might seem a bit naïve or preposterous. Love difficulties? Love setbacks? Love failures? Come on, get real!
But the truth is, we’ve all had experience with this “love the difficult” strategy—as little children. In fact, it helped get us ready for life.
If you’ve ever watched a toddler learning to walk, they walk, fall down, walk, fall down, walk, fall down—dozens or hundreds of times. But they never get down on themselves.
You never see a toddler sit down, discouraged, and say, “What is wrong with me? Why do I keep falling? I’ll never learn to walk!”
No, they are excited, exuberant. Their eyes are bright. The challenge invigorates them. Sometimes, they even laugh at themselves when they fall.
The founder of AA has written that we need to handle our failures in a way that “kicks us upstairs rather than downstairs.” In other words, Rilke is right: there are “friendly forces” in our failures and difficulties that can enhance our life.
I believe that bringing the exuberant heart of the child to our failures and difficulties—and even mixing in a little humor—helps to keep us in touch with those friendly forces.
Guest post by Landon Saunders
I have always been struck by the question: what am I giving my life for? We all give our lives for something—whether deliberately or passively.
The greatest risk I run is being lulled to sleep and falling into the rust-filled rut of routine, comfort, and a false sense of security.
So, each morning I ask myself: “What have I got to lose?” And the answer is always: “Just your life—just the intense, delightful experience of being fully alive, of living dangerously.”
A poet has written that boldness has magic in it—the power of purpose, the courage to be happy, the daring to be different, and the wisdom to be indifferent to either praise or blame.
Wisdom is found in a life lived boldly that the self-protected, unduly prudent will never know.
The overly cautious are like the man who built a roof over a sun dial. True, the roof made the sun dial last longer, but it also defeated the purpose for which the sun dial was made.
You have purpose. You are not a victim of circumstances. In all circumstances things are found worth living for. But you will need boldness, so keep it near.
Live boldly, and you just may find the magic you’ve been looking for.
In her book How Philosophy Can Save Your Life, Marietta McCarty reflects on the value of simple everyday pleasures:
“Simple pleasures feed our essential selves: listening to music, being outdoors, seeing a loved face at the door, laughing all the way, knowing we did our best work…Such soul food has been at our fingertips all along…There is something oddly grand about the prospect of living life at its juicy core.”
That last phrase caught my attention: “There is something oddly grand about the prospect of living life at its juicy core.”
McCarty is talking about joy, of course, but not an added-on, extraneous joy. Not the joy of escape, trying to fly away on the wings of mindless entertainment, excess alcohol or whatever dulls the pain.
She’s talking about the joy that is inherent, organic, woven into the very fabric of our existence. A joy that is always near—no escapes needed.
Granted, there are times when joy seems about as far away as poor, demoted ex-planet Pluto, whirling alone in the dark, whining, “But, if I’m not a planet, what am I?”
There are times when life seems about as juicy as a skunk flattened by a semi on an asphalt highway in Death Valley in a heat wave. (See, even there we uncovered a smile.)
So we need to be reminded of the importance of this everyday joy. McCarty tells us three things about it:
First, she says it’s “at our fingertips.” It’s near, not far. We can always reach for it.
Second, organic joy feeds our essential selves. It feeds our souls. It keeps life juicy.
Third, attending to joy lets us taste the grandeur of life.
McCarty is reminding us that everyday joy may be even more important to our lives than we think it is.
Last week, a guest post from Landon Saunders reminded us that there is something about being human that has a sense of glory to it. That reminded me of this quotation from Carlisle:
“There’s a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that imitation is suicide, that he must take himself for better or for worse as his portion. The power which resides in him is new in nature and none but he knows what he can do, and he doesn’t know until he’s tried.”
Surely, part of the glory of being a person is that we’re unique. The person inside your skin has never been here before and will never be here again. There is a place for you to fill in the world that no one else can fill.
But what do we do about this? How can you fulfill your uniqueness?
I’m not sure anyone can tell us that. I don’t think there’s a simple 3-step plan. After all, no one has ever been you before!
We can learn from others (and we should), and we can do our best to get along with others, but when it comes to being the person that only you can be, you’ll have to forge your own path.
I do think, however, that it helps to be playful about this—as opposed to taking it too seriously.
Someone asked Mozart, “Can you describe what it is that gives your music that distinctive Mozartish quality?” He replied, “It’s probably the same thing that gives my nose its distinctive Mozartish shape.”
It’s hard to put into words what makes you or me unique. So what do we do?
Maybe it’s enough just to keep this thought in our hearts: I am something brand new in the world.
Maybe it’s enough to rise in the morning and say: I think I’ll try to be a little more myself today.
After all, it’s been said: “You’ll never be a very good imitation of someone else, but you are the world’s expert at being you.”
Guest post by Landon Saunders
I think my morning and evening rituals are my most important.
In the morning, I make sure to get in touch with who I am, my humanity, and how I want to grow my heart.
In the evening, I make sure to be thankful for my day and to make room for forgiveness for words and actions that were less than I want to be.
I don’t make a big thing out of either one of these rituals. I do them simply, sometimes quickly, as a way of not losing touch with my humanity.
I just read of the passing of George Shultz, a distinguished public servant of many years. When he was Secretary of State, each week he would set aside an hour, close the door to his office having given instructions to his secretary that he was not to be interrupted, the only exceptions being his wife or the President.
In that hour, he would try to clear his mind of the minutia of government and concentrate on the big issues of what was really important. What were the big issues? The “human touch” was central to his thinking, central to how he is remembered.
Being human carries a sense of, how can I say this best, a sense of glory. That glory supersedes all else—all accomplishment, all failure. It is a kind of north star that guides us safely through the choppy waters of our lives toward the fulfillment of our best selves.
Glory, you say? What in the world is that? Glory is one of those words often best left undefined. Just saying the word, just claiming it for your own, rouses something really good in your heart.
In these days of so much anger, suspicion, violent words and behavior, days in which so many think the worst of others instead of the best, maybe a ritual here and there that helped us focus on the glory of being human would be good for our souls.
Don’t make too much of it, but just keep it tucked in your heart.
Guest post by Landon Saunders
People often use the expression “we need to work on this relationship,” but what if we substituted or replaced the word “work” with “play?” Instead of working on your relationships, what if you played at your relationships? It would certainly be more fun, wouldn’t it?
My father was not blessed with a lot of education. He was not blessed with a lot of training, and he never went to a parenting class in his life. He grew up without so many advantages, but you know what my father did? He played with us, and he found a way to make the most difficult things playful.
We worked. He believed in work; he believed in the value of work, and we worked very hard. But I think my Dad must have gotten up earlier in the morning to find ways to turn that work into play.
I could tell you the stories for an hour of little situations—hard, menial tasks—that he was able to find ways to bring to them laughter and delight. Without playfulness, my childhood and growing up would have been vastly different.
Relationships can be challenging. Especially when we are living and interacting in so many new ways over this past year. But what a difference it makes when we bring play into these interactions! Then it becomes clear: relationships are made for enjoyment; they are made for delight.