There are several lines in Rilke’s The Man Watching that have resonated with me over the past year. I memorized the poem nine or ten years ago while driving with Cathy through Left Hand Canyon. The poem begins, I can tell by the way the trees beat after so many dull days on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming, and I hear the far-off fields say things I cannot bear without a friend, I cannot love without a sister.
As I write this I am watching trees bend wildly in the southwest winds that arrive every fall here on the Front Range. The house creaks and moans, the windows whistle, and the trees stretch toward the ground, dominated by the coming storm. Which brings me to a line later in the poem: What we choose to fight is so tiny. What fights us is so great. If only we would let ourselves be dominated as things are by some immense storm, then we could become strong too, and not need names.
The area in which I lived for a quarter century, where Long Island juts into the Great South Bay, is called Timber Point. The trees near the shore are permanently shaped by the winds, leaning to better withstand the Nor’easters that dominate the winter weather.
The winds on the Front Range are not frequent enough to shape the trees, so they never permanently yield like the birch, oaks, and sugar maples of Timber Point. But when the storms arrive, the Colorado cottonwoods and limber pines yield to the elements about them.
Humans are not so good at yielding to the elements about us. As a man, it was in my nature to want to dominate, not be dominated by. I brought myself with myself when I transitioned, and I still fight against the winter wind, refusing to yield. On occasion the winds have almost toppled me. Still, I persist. I may as well push a rope.
I still think of myself as middle aged, but unless I live to 130, I am not middle aged anymore. Everyone thinks I’m middle aged, which I like, and I understand the reason. I take care of myself. I run or bike six days a week and work six or seven. I am constantly taking on new challenges. I didn’t start mountain biking until I was 55. I didn’t start serving with TED and TEDxMileHigh until I was 66. Earlier this year I ran for public office and now serve on the town board in Lyons, Colorado. It’s been a big learning curve, but I haven’t minded it. I am exercising new areas of my brain.
But there is a shadow side to continuing to run at full speed. It means you are not inclined to let yourself trust the storm. You lean into the wind. You fight the storm. And here is the paradoxical truth – life requires both. You must both lean into the wind and be dominated by it. The trick is discerning which is called for at any given time.
The poem includes the narrative of Jacob, and his wrestling match with God. Rilke writes, Whoever was beaten by that angel, though often the angel simply declined the fight, went away proud and strengthened and great from that harsh had that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
I love that Rilke notes, passively, that you can win a wrestling match with God. Sometimes God simply declines the fight. I think stubborn willfulness invites that response from God. Stridency does too. You can win a wrestling match with God, but is it a good thing? Is it a good thing to win a wrestling match when your opponent is the lord of the universe?
Jacob finally discerned when it was time to yield. He had been a manipulative asshole for decades. His brother was headed his way with an army of 300, and Jacob knew the good times were over. He finally yielded when he asked the angel to bless him. Did he know his blessing would be his defeat?
There comes a time when you are exhausted, and it is time to yield. It’s how Rilke finishes the poem. Winning does not tempt that man, this is how he grows. By being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.
Over the last year I reached a point in which I could lean into the wind no longer. My cortisol levels were high. I became frantic in my desire for the approval of others. I was devastated by my own behaviors, disappointing myself profoundly. I finally surrendered to become dominated by the storm that caused my pain. I came to understand what Jungian analyst James Hollis calls existential guilt and could name my own.
But you can’t stay in a state of permanent defeat. You have to move on. Now the storm is subsiding. I am no longer bending as deeply in the wind. I am beginning to rest, and I am wiser. I still have moments of panic and desperation, but so do you. That is the existential reality for all of us.
Even though he had the army to do it, Esau did not kill Jacob. He decided to reconcile with his brother there by the river Jabbok, Jacob limping from his wounded hip while Esau surrendered his anger over his brother’s past transgressions. Both survived defeat at the hands of their own humors and became all the wiser for it.
Am I wiser than I was fifteen months ago? I’m not sure. Ask me in another year or so and we’ll see if the lessons still hold. In the meantime, the sun and the clear pebbles of rain are moving over the landscapes, the valleys, the rivers and the deep trees. Meantime, the wild geese, high in the clear blue air, are headed home again. Aw gees, now I’ve migrated from Rilke to Oliver.
And so it goes.