by Rainer Maria Rilke
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you,
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth,
leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs—
leaving you (it impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
(translated by Robert Bly)
When I read the lines, “one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth, / leaving you, not really belonging to either,” I experienced a deep loneliness. But it is a loneliness in which I feel I am most at home in myself. A sadness full of longing that makes me happy. My wife likes to tease me about being an archetypally lonely man given to roaming the deserted beach in winter at night lost in my melancholy. There is some truth to this. But I want to say a word in defense of loneliness.
Loneliness is not alienation. In loneliness the Other exists. In alienation, it does not. In loneliness there is longing, in alienation, isolation. In depression or alienation the missing factor is meaning, or a sense of purpose, or contact with the invisible realms of existence. Rilke’s “not belonging” to either heaven or earth is really an affirmation of both. For it seems to me that it is the feeling of separateness that awakens consciousness of the other, that establishes, I believe, the reality of the other. And it is in separateness, in distinctness from one another that love becomes possible. And so, in some sense, loneliness is the soil in which love grows.
The great teachers of the value of loneliness are the Sufis. Rumi says, “the grief you cry out from / draws you toward union.” Hafiz, in his poem, My Eyes So Soft, is even more emphatic:
Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human
or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft
My voice so tender,
My need of God
One of my other teachers in this is Frank Sinatra, when he sings, “the songs I know, only the lonely know.” Loneliness teaches a secret knowledge – the value of love. The whole torch song tradition speaks to the truth that, sometimes, love is intensified through the experience of separation. It is more present in its absence. All of a sudden we become aware of the depth of our love when it’s object is gone. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
In Rilke’s poem, the awareness of the two worlds we inhabit, heaven and earth, begins with the recognition of our separateness from both. I think he is saying that we don’t really know either until we know both. But knowing both means belonging to neither. Earth without heaven, says Rilke, is “hopelessly dark.” And without the activity, the variety, the transience of time-bound existence, heaven is “unswerving,” changeless, eternal monotony.
Suspended between these two great powers, says Rilke, all we can do is turn to ourselves, our own little lives, “timid and standing high and growing.” And it is there, perhaps, that we might discover we are not separate after all. “One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.” The two worlds exist in our own hearts. “The Kingdom of Heaven is inside you.”
I think of all the ways I avoid or distract myself from my feelings of loneliness – of longing, of loving, of “my need of God.” – watching TV, surfing the web, shopping for little electronic gadgets, even reading. I need to spend more time at the beach.