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Can We Love the Difficult?

What is required of us is that we love the difficult and learn to deal with it. In the difficult are the friendly forces, the hands that work on us. Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there, against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.

-Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke 

I want this to be over. It goes beyond quarantine fatigue for me. As the months of staying put have continued — all good and necessary to lighten the potential burden on the healthcare system — I have found myself developing an increasing sense of dread. I’m not sure what I am dreading; the unending prospect of learning to live with a circulating virus that is efficient in killing people my age, the doubt that I will be able to adjust to the new normal of the pandemic era, the unknown next step in the social upheaval resulting from our stubbornly racist society, or just facing up to the realization that the last phase of my life will be very different than I had envisioned. Maybe it’s all of those added together.  

I find it helps to go out in nature, taking walks and bike rides with my wife, sitting out on our deck to feel the sun and breeze. But being out also reminds me of needing to stay in most of the time. When I return to the indoors the same demons are lurking in the news, the increasingly familiar routines born of 90 days in the same space (wait, what day is it?), even the quiet. Difficult.

In moments of more clarity, though, I turn to wonder — I wonder why I am reacting this way to a situation that is easier and more privileged than that of most people. I don’t have to go anywhere if I don’t want to and I don’t live in fear of not being able to get food or pay my rent. Difficulty is a relative thing. Humans are experts in finding hardship in any situation, no matter how trivial. We compare our current situation to some ideal of what we think should be happening, a certain formula for suffering. Loving the difficult can turn that on its head. It can provide the contrast needed to appreciate the sweetness of what we have by just being alive. 

Elsewhere Rilke said, in effect, that what we choose to fight against is so small, and victory in that makes us small…rather that we grow by being defeated, decisively, by greater and greater things. These are the hands that work on us, that are working on me now.

  • What is “the difficult” for you right now?
  • What beauty can be found there?
  • How has the difficult helped you to grow?

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