Rainer Maria Rilke on Finding Meaning in Sadness

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Rainer Maria Rilke

As I was reading these excerpts in Letters to a Young Poet by  Rainier Maria Rilke, my instincts kept poking me in the ribs, insisting that Rilke’s ruminations on sadness (which, I believe, can be extended to clinical depression) are far too insightful and important not to be given new life in the world.

I hope you find the following excerpts meaningful. They are taken from a 1984 version of Letters to a Young Poet that was translated by Stephen Mitchell.


But please, ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad.

If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing.

Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there,—is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens.

So you mustn’t be frightened if a sadness rises in front of you, larger than any you have ever seen; if an anxiety, like light and cloud-shadows, moves over your hands and over everything you do. You must realize that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?

Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where all this is coming from and where it is going? Since you know, after all, that you are in the midst of transitions and you wished for nothing so much as to change. If there is anything unhealthy in your reactions, just bear in mind that sickness is the means by which an organism frees itself from what is alien; so one must simply help it to be sick, to have its whole sickness and to break out with it, since that is the way it gets better.



Click here to read Rilke’s thoughts on creativity and living the mystery.






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4 Responses to “Rainer Maria Rilke on Finding Meaning in Sadness”

  1. Rachel Says:

    I found this VERY helpful. Thank you, Phil.

  2. Phil Bolsta Says:

    I am glad you found it meaningful, Rachel.

  3. Alyssa Says:

    I completely agree, and learning to NOT resist sad/uncomfortable feelings is one of the most liberating things I have experienced in life!

  4. Phil Bolsta Says:

    Glad to hear that, Alyssa!

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