January 14, 2011

What Lies Ahead

A Sunbeam, by Leonid Pasternak

Nothing alien happens to us, but only what has long been our own. We have already had to rethink so many concepts about motion; now we must also begin to learn that what we call fate comes not from outside us but from within. . . . Just as for so long we were mistaken about the movement of the sun, we are still mistaken about what lies ahead of us in time.

Borgeby gärd, Sweden, August 12, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet


  1. I want to agree with Rilke here, but then I think of babies born into war ravaged countries for instance and it seems to me there is something alien that happens to them from birth. But for those of us with a greater illusion of having control over our destiny, these are wise words indeed.

  2. I think you make an important point here, Elisabeth. Certainly there are people who can rightly feel that their fate comes not from within, but as something imposed by alien and hostile forces from without. While not invalidating what Rilke is saying, it does put it into a certain context. Are his reflections only for those of us who, in relative terms, live in the comfort zone? Perhaps. But still I feel that even people buffeted by calamaties and misfortunes not of their doing are served well by embracing those situations as their own, not in the sense of feeling responsible for what has happened to them, or of passively accepting their dire circumstance, but of needing to find and forge their own fate within those dire circumstances.

    Perhaps this is just 'comfort zone' drivel on my part, but I think, for example, of the words of pianist Alice Herz-Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor (107 years old), who despite the raw hopeless tragedies she has lived through, is capable of saying "In any case, life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything".

    Herz-Sommer wrote A Garden of Eden in Hell and is featured in this video.

  3. I so appreciate Elisabeth's reminder about our brothers and sisters who suffer unspeakable atrocities, and have no seeming hope of escape. And I so appreciate Lorenzo's offering of one such sister, who touches me with her bright eyes and fingers.

    There is a constant movement in Rilke to take into his hands what is of the world, to make it his own. I think there is no better model for living. To ignore what is factual around us, as happened to the physicists and mathematicians who demonstrated that the sun is at the center of the planets for centuries, is unconscionable. Observe it, and take it into yourself. Find a way to make it your own.

    Of course I can't hear that word "fate" without the poem "Invictus" coming to mind. William Ernest Henley wrote the poem from his hospital bed at age 25, when he had to have his leg amputated because tuberculosis had diseased his foot. The gift of poetry means that his words of hope written from a bed of anguish have sung to so many over the years, including Nelson Mandela, who found this poem to be a banner of his own hope in prison for 27 years. It shouts, along with Rilke and Alice Herz-Sommer: Someone is here! Someone makes us happy. I, I, make me happy.

    by William Ernest Henley

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds and shall find me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

  4. I know this to be true.

    I am responsible for what I see.
    I choose the feelings I experience and I decide upon the goal I would achieve.
    Everything that seems to happen to me I have asked for, and received as I have asked.

    A Course in Miracles.

  5. What wonderful thoughts pouring out of generous minds onto the pages here!

    When considering this question, I think it is important not to fall into either/or, this or that, thinking. It is both/and. We are born into a time and place and global context with all that entails AND in that time and place we carve out our own values, meanings, emotional environment - all of these things have consequences and become our fate within the outer context of our lives.

    For example, Congresswoman Giffords did not create the horror of her current circumstance. Other people's values and intentions affect our lives. She will carve her 'fate from within' by the way in which she embraces her resulting life circumstance.

    From my point of view, believing too literally that we have created everything that happens to us is a form of primitive 'magical thinking': the primitive thinking, for example, of a three-year-old who as they walk down the street singing and jumping over cracks in the cement, "Step on a crack ... break Mother's back".

    That said, there are areas where our beliefs and attitudes create our immediate reality. We just need to be careful not to attribute everything that happens to a person to their own projections from within.

    Does a young soldier in the midst of a war create the reality in which he finds himself? Yes perhaps he volunteered to go, but he did not 'fate' the war. Yes, he made a choice that affects his fate, but he did not position the sniper on the rooftop who shoots and wounds him. He does determine his 'fate from within', by how he handles the global forces, the will, the intent, and the circumstance of others around him.

    Thank you Ruth and Lorenzo for the inspiring addition of Herz-Sommer and Henley's always moving thoughts on this topic.

  6. It all comes down to the ancient wisdom of knowing thyself. When we know only the surface of ourselves, so much of what happens in our lives may seem alien. When we have have become intimate, however, with our true selves — our souls, our spirits, our ineradicable values — we realize that our fate may depend less on what is perceived as "alien" or beyond our control, and more upon how we respond to those circumstances. I think that what Rilke is saying here is that our fate is is not necessarily "what happens" to us, and that the more important factor is what our character ("what has long been our own") allows to happen to us.

  7. I laugh, I wrote this of coming here today before I read a word. And then I read, and the coincidence of movement makes me laugh, causes me to think I am closer to the train's passing than I knew.

    I'm feeling Rilke pass me by like a fast train. Only a few words every day and yet I am finding it difficult to keep up. My hands keep on slipping, each car travelling by so quickly.

    I am gone today. I wish I had a moment to capture these words to take them with me. Perhaps I'll try to find the time to carry them and consider them more closely, for I am lost inside of the rumble right now.


  8. I am delighted to arrive here at this lively forum, Ruth and Lorenzo. Thank you for setting this stage.

    Rilke's words ring more true for me with each passing year. Does this mean I am running out of excuses? Yes, it is good for us to look within rather than point to fate.

    Having said that, I agree with Elisabeth that there are situations where it is impossible to rise above our destiny. Hunger, thirst, and lack of shelter can, and usually does, drown out the ability to look within.

  9. I think I have an example of what George mentions. I had the great privilege in the early 1980s to meet an extraordinary painter who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz from age 14 to age 18. After the war he went to Paris, which is where he spent the rest of his life (he was in his 60s when I met him) and where I was introduced to him through a mutual acquaintance. I visited his home on two different trips. He studied with Chagall, and while the latter's influence is undeniable, he developed a style he made his own. Once, when asked in an interview about his experiences in the camp, he responded that he lived to paint back to life every Jew that Hitler had killed. To live, he had often to do the unspeakable. He could not control his fate, which in his case was determined by ancestry and the circumstances of what has now become history; what he could do was figure out how he would respond to his circumstances so that he could stay alive. He lived every day knowing it could be his last.

  10. Wow, Maureen - Thank you for sharing that beautiful story.

    First of all, I have no idea what his first sentence is about ... ?

    I'm nowhere near as well spoken as all of you, but the pivotal word here, for me, is the understanding of the word "fate". I don't believe in it at all, it it means we are predestined. Outside circumstances that we can't control exist, yes, but we have free will.

    Throughout my life, my understanding grows and I THINK I'm on the right track.. until a few years go by and I "reverse" my course. Maybe that is what Rilke is saying. We are creating the path, with our free will - and we have no idea what lies ahead because we are an ongoing saga.

    Boy, am I a lugger-head or what? LOL I'm probably so off the mark.

  11. That is a very moving story, Maureen, and stunning example for us to ponder in connection with the Rilke passage and with so many other things. I agree with the distinction you draw, following up on George's thoughtful reflection, between the circumstances we are all handed, and how we each navigate our ship through the sea of those circumstances (to softly echo Henley's "I am the captain of my soul" that Ruth has quoted). Perhaps 'fate' is the product of the two, the wake our vessel leaves in the sea.

    This reminds me of the distinction Rilke often drew between two fundamental melodies in everyone's life: a universal "vast melody of life", that underscores everything like a bass line, and the individual melody each of us brings to the chorus.

  12. Why does this blog have to move so damn fast? As Erin said, like a train.


    Because I want to linger here at this station for a while longer. To witness the lives of those who have been remembered here, connected with just a few lines of Rilke's, and feel them live in such remarkable and stark beauty, and then to receive them through each of you who have commented, touches and moves me.

    I think that Lorenzo's comment follows up beautifully on Margaret's (dear Margaret!) astute observation that we choose a course in life. Yes, as Dutchbaby and Elisabeth indicate, maybe some of us don't even have the simple human ability to reflect, given physical suffering-constraints. I don't know, but this must be true. (I find it interesting and ironic that ascetics choose to fast in order to gain spiritual enlightenment in light of this.) I love the image of the wake . . . and also of the bass line, and the individual melody.


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!