On Solitude, and Saving a Life

A dear friend shared with me recently two beautiful works, which bear remembering, reveling, and repeating. The first is by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Therefore, dear Sir, love your solitude and try to sing out with the pain it causes you. For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.

Be happy about your growth, in which of course you can’t take anyone with you, and be gentle with those who stay behind; be confident and calm in front of them and don’t torment them with your doubts and don’t frighten them with your faith or joy, which they wouldn’t be able to comprehend.

Seek out some simple and true feeling of what you have in common with them, which doesn’t necessarily have to alter when you yourself change again and again; when you see them, love life in a form that is not your own and be indulgent toward those who are growing old, who are afraid of the aloneness that you trust.

And don’t expect any understanding; but believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.

The second is by Mary Oliver:

The Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

On first read, these pieces are about desolation, the limits of our control, the pain of growth, and the alienation of change. The language Rilke chooses to describe solitude is fascinating. “For those who are near you are far away… and this shows that the space around you is beginning to grow vast.” This sounds terrifying. It invokes the feeling you get when you look up at the stars and realize how vast the universe is, and how small you are, and life seems to zoom out at high speed until the distance renders you indistinguishable from the endless matter around you, a pinhole in an infinite tapestry. For someone who values connection and who fears invisibility, that’s some scary shit.

But, it’s also some true shit. It’s been a hard-learned lesson, but in the end, I am all I have. Others will come and go my entire life. No matter how close I am with someone, I will never fully understand him or her; even the most intimate relationships are limited by the space between our minds. In the end, no matter how entwined we try to make ourselves with other people, we are, and will always be, separate. And I will always be small. My life will only ever be but a single step in the endless march of time.

But, believe it or not, there is comfort here, in this vast space around us:

the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company

You are enough. When you hear your own voice, you may be in solitude, but you are never alone. All the world, all the universe, everything you need — it all resides within you. The space between you and others? It may be vast, but it isn’t empty. If you walk through the brambles and let the pain fertilize your growth, you fill that space with you. It surrounds you, cradles you, and provides a buffer between your heart and the often cold, cruel world outside. That is the “love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance” — it is you.  And when you learn that you cannot mend your life, and you begin, instead, to mend yourself — when you begin to save the only life you have the power to save — you move forward on the journey to the love “so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.” And there is no safety net so strong as a love you carry with you.

The Trifid Nebula, an interstellar nursery

The Trifid Nebula, a cosmic nursery

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