A poet whose work is enjoying a recent revival in pop culture is Rainer Maria Rilke, thanks to the appearance of some of his poetry in the 2019 blockbuster Jojo Rabbit.
Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Jojo, a member of the Nazi Youth whose imaginary friend is a comically flamboyant version of Hitler himself. Jojo, a gentle, idealistic boy, experiences a dramatic change in mindset after discovering his glamorous mother is hiding a teenage Jewish girl in their attic. He subsequently develops a childlike crush on her. At several points throughout the movie, Elsa, the Jewish girl, references the beautiful words of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and at the end credits, a quote from his poem “Go to the Limits of Your Longing” appears.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final
Some poetry continues to crop up throughout history, remaining relevant and poignant due to its transcendental, universal themes. Rilke’s poetry resonates particularly by way of its attempts to bring together through words the concepts of beauty and suffering, life, and death. All of which are foregrounded in the movie. Both Jojo and Elsa’s young lives are punctuated by the gravity of such sensations as loss, longing, fear, hope and, always, love. It is, therefore, a wonderful culmination to the tale when, as the final scene closes, the words: “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror/ Just keep going / No feeling is final” appear, along with the inimitable opening bars of David Bowie’s “Heroes”.
From this simple stanza, we can understand one indisputable aspect of life: nothing is permanent; change is the only certainty. The only solution to the opacity of life is to continue living it. This has the dual benefit of providing us with solace in times of suffering and humility in times of joy. Let’s explore some other quotes from the great poet and discover some more timeless lessons.
On Knowing Yourself
The only journey is the one within.
Here, Rilke reminds us that in our lives, the most important thing we can do is to get to know ourselves. No matter how far we travel, where we go, what we experience, and who we meet, it is only relevant as far as we are connected to our own emotions, thoughts, and feelings. The longest and most meaningful trip we can take is the one into our own hearts.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
Following on from the idea of “journeying within”, Rilke warns us that we may not be able to reach every part of ourselves straight away. He advises that we exercise patience towards all that we do not yet understand about life, trusting that with time and experience, answers will come. It is a waste of energy to struggle with things we may not yet be capable of grasping and so we would do better to stay present, enjoy the journey and always approach our lives with love. The more we live, the more we learn.
If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape one hundred days of sorrow.
On a similar theme, Rilke highlights the devastating power of anger. With these words, he shows how acting on our anger can have disastrous consequences. If we learn instead to practice patience, we are less likely to have to deal with the aftermath of acting in the heat of the moment.
We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go. For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.
Drawing on the timeless maxim: “if you love something, let it go”, Rilke reflects on how, in relationships, we should not seek to limit the freedom of our significant other. True love lasts, he says, when two people are comfortable and secure enough in their relationship to co-exist without being codependent.
A person isn’t who they are during the last conversation you had with them – they’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship.
Continuing on the theme of relationships, the great poet offers some timeless wisdom here, basically saying that sometimes people have bad days and we should not always judge them harshly for it. A friendship is a long and profound journey and is not an easy thing to maintain.
Two individuals trying to express themselves to each other can often lead to misunderstandings and miscommunications. We should give our loved ones the benefit of the doubt and try to understand the core of who they are, rather than writing them off when they act in a way that we don’t necessarily agree with.
Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is in the right, always.
In our final Rilke quote, we may take an important lesson similar to that of the one from Jojo Rabbit: that life can be uncertain, beautiful, and terrible, but that most importantly, many things are largely out of our control. We cannot control the life that happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. If we know ourselves and react to life in a way that is true to who we are, we can trust that what happens to us is right.
Even 100 years after his death, the ineffable words of Rainer Maria Rilke still ring with truth, beauty, and universality. Thanks to his appearance in Jojo Rabbit, many of us are now taking the opportunity to explore the inspirational work of the great poet and learning timeless lessons about love, friendship, anger, and, perhaps most significantly, ourselves.