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Books that Inspire Me: #13 Letters to a Young Poet

This is the 13th in a series of posts in which I share thoughts on a book that has inspired me over the years. 

In 1903, German poet Rainier Maria Rilke wrote a series of letters to a young poet (at the time Rilke himself was only 27). Rilke’s young correspondent was plagued with anxiety and self-doubt. The wisdom and eloquence of Rilke’s replies to the younger man’s anguished entreaties is evidenced by the fact that more than one hundred years after they were written, these collected letters are still in print.

Rilke’s advice to look beyond the immediate pain and grief of one’s sadnesses and to trust that they will indeed be the moments where something new and beautiful is being born has never been more relevant than it is today, in a world where the pandemic has brought much sadness. 

In his other letters, Rilke gave the young would-be poet practical advice for finding the joy in sadness, and for uncovering the poetry of one’s own heart. These are the two guidances that have most touched me personally:

First, Rilke told the young man to ignore the critics – including the imagined critics who criticize your work before you have even started to write, and who cause so many people to go to their graves with their poems, real and metaphorical, unwritten. Rilke told the young poet to find solitude and to look within to his own innate wisdom and to trust in himself.

Second, Rilke told him to “train your doubt.” Instead of allowing it to fill you with anxiety (“This will never work!”), he said, force it to ask helpful questions (“What must we do to give this a better chance of working”). Love the questions, he said, and perhaps you will live your way into the answers.

I was recently at an airport bookstore and picked up the new book E.R. Nurses by James Patterson and Matt Eversmann. It includes dozens of stories told in the first person by emergency and critical care nurses. Tom O’Hara, an E.R. nurse at a level-one trauma center, wrote about how he had helped out in a busy covid unit. The emotional trauma was, he said, “far worse than what I experienced after I came back from the war.” And he gave this warning about what many caregivers are likely to experience long after covid has become an endemic disease:

“I came back from Afghanistan with PTSD. I know the warning signs, and I can tell each one of these tough young women [nurses in a Chicago covid unit] is lost in the fog of war. They’re going up against an enemy no one fully understands – and they’re losing. Seeing all of these deaths stack up day after day is making them question their abilities.”

In the post-pandemic era, one of the challenges of leadership will be helping people learn to “see a little beyond the outworks of our presentiment,” learn to trust in ourselves and our own wisdom and intuition, and to train our doubts by making them ask constructive questions. 

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