In Mourning the Heart Does Not Forget

atkins-bookshelf-literatureDuring his lifetime, the brilliant and sensitive poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a prolific letter writer — he wrote more than 17,000 letters. Unfortunately not all those letters are in print; however of those that have been published, we get a glimpse of his deep intellect, his ruminations, and profound insights into the human condition. In this beautiful, touching, and eloquent letter to Margot Sizzo, written on January 6, 1923 (near the end of poet life, when he was 48), Rilke reflects on the prolonged process of mourning, the weakness of words to console, that the heart does not forget, and that, ultimately, death is a natural part of life:

“Words.. could they be words of consolation? I am not sure about that, and I don’t quite believe that one could console oneself over a loss as sudden and great as the one you just experienced. Even time does not ‘console,’ as people say superficially; at best it puts things in their place and creates order — and even that only because we so quickly begin to regard this order casually and consider it so little, this order to which time contributes so quietly by finding the proper place for, appeasing, and reconciling everything within the great Whole. Instead of admiring what has been placed there, we regard it as a result of our forgetfulness and the weakness of our heart simply because it no longer pains us acutely. Ah, how little it forgets, this heart — and how strong it would be if we did not deprive it of its tasks before they had been fully and genuinely achieved! Our instinct should not be to desire consolation over a loss but rather to develop a deep and painful curiosity to explore this loss completely, to experience the peculiarity, the singularity, and the effects of this loss in our life. Indeed, we should muster the kind of noble greed that would enrich our inner world with this loss and its significance and weight… The more profoundly we are affected by such a loss and the more painfully it concerns us, the more it becomes our task to claim as a new, different, and definitive possession that which has been so hopelessly emphasized by this loss. This amounts to the infinite achievement that instantly overcomes all the negative aspects of pain, all the sluggishness and indulgence that is always a part of pain.”

For further reading: The Wisdom of Rilke
Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to Mrs. Bixby
Best Books on Eulogies
High Flight: Touching the Face of God

For further reading: The Cambridge Companion to Rilke by Karen Leeder (2010)

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