The Meaning of Life (Perhaps)


Over the past few days, I’ve been immersing myself in the work of the early twentieth century poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Now seems like as good a time as any for this. Not to stop taking productive action, but to step out of the 24-7 news cycle, even if only for a bit, into something deeper.

Here’s a poem that really speaks to me, that is both timely and timeless. Italics, Rilke. My reflections, not.

Silent Friend of many distances,
Feel how your breath is still increasing space.
Among the beams of the dark bell tower let
yourself ring out. What feeds on you

will grow strong upon this nourishment.
Be conversant with transformation.
From what experience have you suffered most?
Is drinking bitter to you, turn to wine.

Rilke is addressing us, the reader, with a reminder that all we need to do to remember how vast the world is is pay attention to our breath. Even from our most internal depths, if we express ourselves, if we let ourselves ring out, we’ll be nourishment for others. We need not, no we cannot, shy away from transformation, for it is the nature of life. Yes, there is suffering. But there is also joy and meaning.

Be, in this immeasurable night,
magic power at your senses crossroad,
be the meaning in their strange encounter.

My favorite stanza! Rilke is offering that we get to make meaning out of the mystery of life, including our very own being here right now. It is up to us. This responsibility is utterly awesome and, at times, utterly terrifying.

And if the earthly has forgotten you,
say to the still earth: I flow.
To the rapid water speak: I am.

Ahh, perhaps the greatest of all paradoxes: Our existence is at once but a small part of ever-flowing nature, and also a bold and significant endeavor.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, 1923. Sonnets to Orpheus, Part Two, #29.)

For me, this poem couldn’t be more pertinent. It’s a reminder of impermanence, that things are always changing—that not even the most outrageous and seemingly important current events outlast deep time. (“I flow.”) And yet, it is also a reminder that we do matter, and so, too, do the events of our era. It is up to us to step into the arena and shape them. (“I am.”) The work, I guess, is holding both of these seemingly opposing truths at once.


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