***I’ve picked a few quotes from the 19th/20th century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, for this post. They are all taken from Letters To A Young Poet.
“And, to speak again of solitude, it becomes increasingly clear that this is fundamentally not something that we can choose or reject. We are solitary. We can delude ourselves about it, and pretend that it is not so. That is all. But how much better it is to realize that we are thus, to start directly from that very point.” –Letter #8
The part of someone that is capable of giving and receiving love is somewhere beyond where we can reach it. It exists outside this world, yet connected to it.
We can see its shadows. Phone calls, text messages, even spoken words and physical touch are all but shadows and traces of its action . . . they come from a place we cannot reach.
Or at least, not a place we can reach any time soon. Rilke:
“Loving in the first instance is nothing that can be called losing, surrendering and uniting oneself to another (for what would a union be, of something unclarified and unready, still inferior–?), it is a sublime occasion for the individual to mature, to grow into something in himself, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and summons him to a distant goal Only in this sense, as a task to work upon themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”) might young people use the love that is given them. The self-losing and the surrender and all manner of communion is not for them (they must save and treasure for a long, long while yet), it is the ultimate thing, it is perhaps something for which human lives are so far hardly adequate.” (bold mine) –Letter #7
And so, when we are separated from someone we care about, we are in essentially no different place than when they are close by. The essence, the soul, the spark at the core of a human being—this remains out of our reach no matter how near or how far they are from us.
What, then, are we missing? What makes us feel so bad?
We miss all of the little comforts, the moments of pleasure, the small distractions that another person can provide from the stress and problems of life. We miss the easy dance of their companionship.
But the struggle to be together, to inch closer to the shining center of another human being, persists no matter whether the distance is measured in miles or inches.
There is a trap here.
There is a way of thinking that says, “If only I had This One Thing, then I could accomplish what I want to accomplish.” It appears in many situations, but it is especially relevant to missing someone. In this case, it looks like, “If only This One Person was here, then I’d be happy.”
Notice the word that “person” replaces: “thing.” This line of thinking objectifies the person you miss; it turns them into the keystone of your own happiness.
And once they become the keystone of your happiness, you begin to lay burdens on them. You imagine them acting this way, at this time, doing this specific thing that will make you happy.
Inevitably, when they return, they are not this magical keystone of happiness that you have built them up to be. The are a human being, not an object.
It is too much to lay the responsibility of your own happiness on another.
“Many young people, to be sure, who love falsely, that is simply surrendering, letting solitude go (the average person will always persist in that way), feel the oppression of failure and want to make the situation in which they find themselves full of vitality and fruitful in their own personal fashion–; for their nature tells them that even less than anything else of importance can the questions of love be resolved publicly and by this or that compromise; that they are questions, intimate questions from one human being to another, which need in every instance a new, particular, purely personal answer–: but how should those who have already confounded themselves and are not longer bounded or separate, who therefore no longer possess anything individual, be able to find a way out of themselves, out of the depth of their already shattered solitude?” (bold mine) –Letter #7
How do we avoid this trap? The absence of another causes pain; surely their return must end that pain and create happiness, right? Rilke:
“. . . almost all our sorrows are moments of tension which we experience as paralysis, because we no longer hear our estranged feelings living. Because we are alone with the strange thing that has entered us; because for a moment everything familiar and customary has been taken from us; because we stand in the middle of a crossing where we cannot remain standing. Therefore it is, also, that the sorrow passes by us: the new thing in us, that has been added to us, has entered into our heart has gone into its innermost chamber, and is no more even there, –is already in the blood. And we do not realize what it was.” –Letter #8
We avoid the trap by remembering that unhappiness is not something to be avoided. It is the raw material that feeds our soul; the ache of solitude is another layer of soil being laid in the bed of our heart, from which a rich and deep life continues to grow. We thank the rains for the harvest just as we thank the sun, but too much of either destroys the crop.
A loved one may bring you sorrow, and may bring you joy. They will likely bring you both. Do not shun one for the other.
A loved one’s absence is the opportunity to turn inward, to reconnect with the self, and to do the internal work that is necessary for the real journey toward the unreachable center of their being. It is a chance to build ourselves, to let go of fears and learn to be courageous.
Learn to be fearless; it’s the way you can best serve your loved one while they’re gone.
“. . . fear of the inexplicable has not only impoverished the existence of the solitary man, it has also circumscribed the relationships between human beings, as it were lifted them up from the river bed of infinite possibilities to a fallow spot on the bank, to which nothing happens. For it is not only indolence which causes human relationships to repeat themselves with such unspeakable monotony, unrenewed from one occasion to another, it is the shyness of any new, incalculable experience which we do not feel ourselves equal to facing. But only the man who is prepared for everything, who excludes nothing, not even the most unintelligible, will live the relationship with another as something vital, and will himself exhaust his own existence.” –Letter #8