The year was 2006 and I was standing behind a podium at the Los Angeles VA Hospital in a small conference room with an audience of my peers, other palliative care fellows, and a few physicians and nurses who stopped in to eat their lunch and listen to my presentation on spirituality and end of life care. It was near the end of my year long palliative care fellowship as the one social worker on the team. I had struggled the whole year for a sense of direction. I was a young 28 year old. What did I know about helping veterans with a terminal illness? What did I know of suffering then? I don’t really remember what I presented, but I do recall ending with Rainer Maria Rilke’s words from “Letters to a Young Poet,” 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. Rilke’s words gave me the confidence to stand before those medical professionals and share my truth and also say I don’t know.
This year of the pandemic, the great political divide, and ongoing natural disasters of climate change have brought so many questions that we continue to live. On this winter solstice night, I leave you with another poem, Go to the Limits of Your Longing by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Book of Hours I 59 to hold onto in this time of darkness.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing,
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.