I beg you…to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
–Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet
Most of us think that we must find the answers in order to have a peaceful, fulfilled existence. But the poet Rilke exhorts us to live the questions! — and not only to live them but to love them. He tells us that if we do, without even noticing it, we may find our way into the answer. This seems like an unlikely paradox. After all, how can we find the answers we seek by simply living the questions?
I have found that there is great wisdom in Rilke’s advice. In my own life, and in my work with hundreds of clients over the years, it is when we simply explore the questions, feel our way into the experience of them, and then let our exploration germinate without attempting to resolve the issue, we find that the answer comes – most often not one that we would expect but the right answer nonetheless.
This is particularly true with questions about life’s meaning or purpose. Usually a client will come to me with some sort of symptom – a depression, or anxiety – that points to a much larger issue, an issue that brings with it a big question. Questions such as “should I leave my spouse?” or “What should I do with my life now that my children are gone?” or simply “why am I here at this time, in this place. I have achieved everything I set out to do and yet I find no pleasure in it” and finally, “is this all there is?”
Hopefully it is obvious to you that there is no way for me to provide an answer to someone else – and even if I did, it would not really be the right answer for this client. Each person must ultimately struggle with these questions, like Jacob wrestling with God, not giving up until he is blessed. And, even though he walked with a limp for the rest of his days, it was a small price to pay. From that day forward, he was a changed man. So, too, do my clients wrestle with the divine, with God if you will, when they face the dark night of the soul – alone on a journey toward some unknown destination.
Chances are you have found yourself in such a place – or perhaps you are also facing such a question in your life right now. What can you do, then, to live the questions? You can start by letting go of the quest for the answer and simply allow the question to be. At the same time, you can prepare yourself, much like a farmer prepares the soil, to be ready for the harvest. Keep track of your dreams, day dreams and fantasies in a journal. Write down your thoughts, feels, fears, hopes in your journal. Purchase a box of colored pencils and draw the images that come to mind as you contemplate what you have written. And then live the life that is right in front of you.
The Buddhists have a saying “chop wood and carry water”, which means to go about the daily chores with an appreciation for the fact that this, too, is significant. With patience, trust, and a willingness to let the answers come in the right time – as Rilke says, most likely without your even knowing it – you will look back and see that the questions really were more important than the answers you once thought you needed.