At the end of law school when I decided that I was serious (or at least somewhat serious) about pursuing my writing, I started looking for how-to manuals or some kind of inspiration. After a lifetime of being molded in the culture of higher learning, I was not eager to race off down the brambly path of the less traveled. I needed some semblance of structure to jolt me out of my paralysis, so I could start making moves. I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. Then, I remembered the scene from Sister Act 2 when Sister Mary Clarence gives Rita a copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke.
When I procured a copy of the book, I expected to receive a few words of encouragement and some basic writing advice. I never anticipated that Rilke’s words would reach down into the core of my being and illuminate all that was, and what would be, in my heart. I am Mr. Kappus and I read the book as if Rilke is writing to me and me alone. His words are a “laying on of hands, the holiness of myself released.” I reread my favorite passages over and over again and they never get old. A line here or a paragraph there, something new grabs me every single time.
I don’t even have to read the lines anymore, so ingrained in my spirit they are. When I’m feeling exhausted from the draining social interactions at my job, I slowly walk through the trees that lead to my classroom down the hill and I hear Rilke telling me not to become anxious, but stay close to the trees that will never abandon me and I enter into a state of peace. When I grow frustrated by the fact that I have no outlet for the intensity of the emotions because everywhere I turn, someone is giving me some trite advice along the lines of, don’t worry, just be happy, I find solace in Rilke who sympathizes with my contemplative nature because “everything is serious.”
Melancholy echoes from every single word he writes. It is clear that Rilke was battling some serious demons of his own as he tried to encourage this young man, a fact that he does not attempt to conceal, but rather embraces and wears as a badge of honor. He makes a point of telling the novice poet that he was not speaking to him from some enlightened pedestal; his life was “full of troubles and sadness” from which his wisdom was birthed. Rilke was a firm believer in the value of solitude and sadness. While I have always appreciated the profundity of his assertions, it has taken awhile for me to wrap my mind and heart around his truth.
“So, dear Mr. Kappus, you shouldn’t be dismayed if a sadness rises up in front of you, greater than any you have ever seen before; or if a disquiet plays over your hands and over all your doings like light and cloud-shadow. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why should you want to exclude from your life all unsettling, all pain, all depression of spirit, when you don’t know what work it is these states are performing within you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where it all comes from and where it is leading? You well know you are in a period of transition and want nothing more than to be transformed. If there is something ailing in the way you go about things, then remember that sickness is the means by which an organism rids itself of something foreign to it. All one has to do is help it to be ill, to have its whole illness and let it break out, for that is how it mends itself.
To say that I don’t like being unhappy would be an understatement of gargantuan proportion. I am very protective of my happiness. I feel like I spent so much of my childhood being sad that I have no more time left to devote to that emotion. I am fiercely protective of my happiness, quick to expel any negative energy, and rebuke others for wallowing in their misery. “Get up!” I yell from the throne of my self-righteous. If you’re unhappy, change your circumstances and if you don’t want to do that, be quiet.
With a disposition of that nature, Rilke would appear to be an unlikely kindred spirit and his words should provide no solace to me, but I have been mulling over the aforementioned passage for months now. Despite my best efforts, I’m sad. I’ve been sad for a very long time now.
I’m not exactly sure what triggered the sadness or when it began. I just remember returning to Guatemala this past summer, determined to have a great year. In August, I started reading Traveling Mercies and by the time I got to the end of the book, I felt like Anne Lamott had dug into my chest with a crochet needle, scooped out my shredded heart, and laid it before me to observe the damage. After that, I started engaging in a nightly ritual of washing my face with my tears to the soundtrack of Tamela Mann’s anointed vocals. Take me to the king, I don’t have much to bring. My heart is torn in pieces; it’s my offering.
I never knew why I was crying and I stopped looking for a rationale – just gave myself over to the grief. Then, just when the crying jags had decreased to about once a week, my dad died. What had been a gentle, rocking grief, broke out into monstrous waves of grief that ravaged my body and left me afraid of not surviving the next one. I was bracing my body against the waves, but then some bit of intuition told me to stop fighting the waves and instead, ride them to shore. Embracing the grief seemed dangerous. What if it dragged me down to hell and I could never find my way back? I thought back to the first time I went sledding and my friend told me that if I braced my body against the bumps on the hills, I would feel every single one. But, if I relaxed into them, I would have a smooth ride. I decided to move with the bumps and see where the ride took me.
I have spent so much time over the past few months trying to rationalize my way out of this hole. I have been trying to identify the culprits and then write about it as a means to freedom. Every blog post I have written on the topic, I have never published because my words consistently ring hollow. This period in my life is very complex and I cannot attribute its existence to a single source, as much as I would like to. Guatemala is usually the source of my aggression, but the reality is, this sadness was inevitable. It has been inside of me for a while; Guatemala was just the conduit through which it expressed itself. My life is so slow and quiet there that I had the time to listen to what was going on inside of me and once the sadness had my attention, it started to roar.
I am not sure how long this period will last and I’m not stressed about it anymore. I feel like Joy in Inside Out who had to learn to value Sadness. Sadness helped me realize that I was hurting and needed to heal. I never thought that I would find strength in my pain, but I have. I reached down into my darkest places and I survived. He scanned the sea, with such determination that he plumbed the depths of his sadness and finally depleted it.
Sadness has also strengthened my relationship with God. I am learning that God lives in the paradoxes. When my pain was most salient, His love for me was most apparent. My hurt allowed me to connect with Him and other people in such a profound and intense ways that I never knew existed. I have always struggled with entrusting God with my emotional wellbeing. While I was content to let God take control of my academics and my career, I didn’t trust Him with my heart because my happiness did not seem high on His list of priorities. But when the bottom broke, I could finally see Him waiting patiently with open arms to invite me into a rest I most desperately needed.
So, here I am. If you want to know how I am doing, the truth is I’m really sad. And that’s ok. I don’t need pity or to be cajoled out of my grief. It’s just a season. It will pass and when it does, I will be so pleased by my transformation and so thankful the season came. Indeed, I already am.