Young and In Love: Reflections on Rilke’s Advice to the "Young Poet."

A note to my readers:

There is a reason why I don’t like writing reflective essays, though sometimes I feel compelled to because of what I read.  The reason is that I am always seem to come off sounding sanctimonious and irritatingly preachy when I reflect on things.  However, I cannot stop: writing about what makes me think helps me process, and I like having people read it so I can learn more from what they say.  I’m always worried I’ll come off as a braggart, when I blog, so if I do please tell me why and what I can do to fix the problem.  I swear, I don’t mean to sound like a big-headed ego-tripper.


It is also good to love: because love is difficult.  For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.  That is why young people, who are beginners at everything, are not yetcapable of love: it is something they must learn.  With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.  But learning-time is always a long, secluded time, and therefore loving, for a long time ahead and far on into life, is–: solitude, a heightened and deepened kind of aloneness for the person who lives.  Loving does not first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified [sic], unfinished, and still incoherent–?), it is a high inducement for the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world in himself for the sake of another person; it is a great, demanding claim on him, something that chooses him and calls him to vast distances.  Only in this sense, as the task of working on themselves (“to hearken and to hammer day and night”) may young people use the love that is given to them.  Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough. But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing: they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment…: And what can happen then?  What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? 

A couple of weeks ago, I had a long discussion with a friend on young love, a conversation that ended with a spectacular, drama-queen-level emotional blow-up on my part, because I am nothing if not a reactionary.  To calm me, another friend suggested I seek the consolations of philosophy by recommending I re-read one of my favorite books: Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, specifically letter number seven.  Because I love Rilke, and because I very much trust the wisdom of said friend, I did as I was told.

I first read Letters when I was in elementary school.  The rounded, awkward handwriting spelling my name on the frontispiece of my copy, as well as the email address it lists as my contact details (the now-defunct account, makes it safe to assume that I was probably around ten or eleven when I first purchased it.  I’d bought it because of the Whoopi Goldberg movie “Sister Act 2,” where Goldberg, as the nun ‘Sister Mary Clarence,’ refers the book to one of her students, Rita Watson.  Being young and easily swayed by a movie I rather liked (I would not stop singing “Joyful Joyful” in pseudo-“Black choir” style for weeks after I had watched it.), I bought it, tried to read it, and did not understand it, though I thought I did, in the simple way that little girls think they can wrap their head around big ideas.

Now that I am older, though still a child in many ways, I am more aware that I do not understand much of Rilke’s sage advice — at least, not on first reading.  Letters to a Young Poet, I have discovered, is a book you’ll have to read over and over and over in order to understand it.  For all of the book’s thinness, it is a heavyweight when it comes to the ideas contained within, relevant not just to poets, but to all writers and all young people.  Letter number seven is a very good example.  I admit that I have only just understood the letter, because it ties in so well with what I have been learning in my PhiloFamily and PhiloAnthro classes (By all accounts, I am falling in love with Philosophy.), but by itself, with a little reflection, what Rilke has to say to his young correspondent can be made clear, particularly on the subject of love (romantic love, to be specific) and youth.

The section of Letters I am reflecting on is quoted above.  This is what I learned from it:

[Disclaimer: Although presented in an authoritative manner, this is purely my opinion — it’s just easier, stylistically, to use this particular voice.  I’m still an amateur at this philosophy thing.  An eager amateur, but an amateur nonetheless.]

If we love a person, we should, according to Rilke, first start loving ourselves — to grow and cultivate ourselves — in order that we may present ourselves to our beloveds fully-formed and worthy of sharing a soul with.  This is why it is not for the ‘young’ to “surrender” to love: they have not yet grown, had time to build their inner worlds, to “save and gather themselves,” as Rilke put it.  By young, however, I mean emotional/psychological/spiritual immaturity, not necessarily physical age — we are all young and old at our own paces, regardless of what age we actually are, which is why the quote exists that says “Growing old is inevitable; growing up is optional.  Love, as our end — the very reason we live — is by nature a demanding thing, and it takes a lot of maturity (a cultivated intellect and will) to do so, maturity which takes time to achieve, and is usually done as an individual.

The “learning-time” that Rilke describes, then, is the process of learning to become a cultivated individual, to grow up, to develop the inner world through education and life experience.  Hence the term “aloneness,” because our inner world is truly ours and ours alone, and within it, we are, in a sense, “alone.”  It is only when this inner world is developed can it express itself appropriately to the act of loving.  Otherwise, as Rilke puts it, “…what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent–?”

In terms of romantic love, when we are ‘young’, we tend to be “unclarified, unfinished,” and so we fall headlong into love, torrid and passionate and, usually, short-lived, devastating (There are few things as dramatically intense as a teenage romance, unless it is a teenage heartbreak.  Hence the existence of Romeo and Juliet.) in their fervency and brevity.  The results are, as a friend, Tet Rivera, observed, that during this immature state, having not fully had time to understand one’s identity, one runs the risk of losing it in the maelstrom of being an “us.”  Often, as Rilke says, we are left “half-broken things” in the aftermath of such a passion.

Of course, there are some physically young couples who have matured early enough to be able to handle mature relationships — the high school sweethearts who either marry or manage to part amicably, without much heartache — which is why I had to mention earlier that “youth” is a matter of maturity, not actual age.  Still, for the most part, to be able to love truly, we need time: time to grow, to organize ourselves, to get a handle of our emotions and passions.  In short, we need time to grow up a bit.

In the end, it is that time spent that makes loving sweeter, because when we finally find the right one — the one with whom we may merge and surrender — we will be able to give them a self that has obviously been treasured: a self we took time to refine, to grow, to educate, and to expand.  Choosing to take time on ourselves, to give that self value, to love ourselves, proves our love for our eventual beloveds.  It’s like giving someone a love note hastily scribbled on a post-it, versus a poem written in your best handwriting, with no cross-outs, on fine paper: “I love you so much that I would rather take the time to give you the gift of my best self, and give you time to find yourself as well, rather than rush into a romance as a pair when we both are still unsure of our individual identities.”

These reflections have been a hard lesson to swallow for me, because like many teenage girls, I have had my “I wish I had a boyfriend” moments (usually occuring when it rains, during on-campus enlistment, and whenever I have to get a CBC).  Sometimes, I can be rather impatient, because, admittedly, as an NBSB, I envy couples their happiness, their cozy comfort, their anniversaries and over-the-top declarations of love.  But we all develop at our own pace: the couples I admire are usually composed of people far more mature than I.  

It is their time.  It is not (yet) mine.

I won’t pretend that I will cease to occasionally fantasize about Valentines’ Day serenades (Darn you HaranROC!) and sharing an umbrella on a rainy day.  I am a teenager, hormones ablaze, and I’m a romance writer to boot, so those fantasies are the fuel of my fictioneering.  However, at eighteen, having finally been able to understand Rilke’s words of advice, I think I have a slightly better understanding (or at least, a more well thought-through explanation) of why God hasn’t let me fall yet.  For now, this is love: “cultivating” myself by basking in the intellectual glory of my super-smart friends (ESPECIALLY the Dumol Kids), reading good books, listening to great music, obsessively tweeting things I learn in my philosophy classes, going to church, having quiet time, sharing with my small group, experiencing (non-romantic) love from friends and family, and, most of all, trusting God to make me who I am meant to be.

All of us will not be perfect when we finally love.  Perhaps Rilke’s words make it seem like we should be super-mature, ideal “adults,” who aren’t messy and never make mistakes, before we are allowed to find love.  If that were the case, we’d all die old maids/bachelors, and the species would go extinct.  But at least, having matured a little bit, we are more capable of loving someone else, because we have loved ourselves by giving ourselves time to grow and develop, by not rushing ourselves into something that takes time and an arsenal of stock life-knowledge to plough through.  Most of all, waiting to mature gives us time to learn about other loves — friendly love, parental love, brotherly/sisterly love, unconditional love — that will contribute to the love we will eventually give to the person we choose and who chooses us.  After all, you cannot give what you do not have, and the more you have of something, the more you can give.

So for now, I think I wll be content with waiting.  The love I am experiencing right now, the “learning-time” love I described, should suffice.  And even if I (*wince* *knock on wood*) never find romance, I will still have God, and His love, “the Love which moves the sun and other stars,” (Dante reference courtesy of my Dumol Kid friends), that goes beyond age and youth, transcending time into eternity.  That kind of Love should be more than enough.

~ NC

To the friends who inspired this piece, and the friends who helped critique it.

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