The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Live the Questions: Rilke on Embracing Uncertainty and Doubt as a Stabilizing Force

Jacqueline Novogratz’s wonderful commencement address reminded me of a favorite passage from Letters to a Young Poet (public library) by Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926). In this thoroughly elevating modern classic, the beloved poet makes a beautiful case for the importance of living the questions, embracing uncertainty, and allowing for intuition.

In a 1903 letter to his protégé, the 19-year-old cadet and budding poet Franz Xaver Kappus, Rilke writes:

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

In another letter from November of the following year, Rilke revisits the subject:

Your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it, and you will find it perplexed and embarrassed perhaps, or perhaps rebellious. But don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when from a destroyer it will become one of your best workers — perhaps the cleverest of all that are building at your life.

Letters to a Young Poet is a timelessly rewarding read in its entirety, and inspired Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian and Anna Deavere Smith’s Letters to a Young Artist.

Published June 1, 2012




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