Let Everything Happen to You

Reflections on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke

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I once had a difficult boss.

I got nervous every time I needed to ask him a question. I had become accustomed to the routine. I would enter his office, say his name quietly, and stand there awkwardly for several seconds while he refused to look at me. So I would sit down, sheepishly, and wait until finally, he would raise his head from his desk, with a look of irritation on his face.

This happened pretty early on. It happened often. And it happened in the middle of Africa, where I had no other support system than my work relationships, at the time. I was working with a faith-based organization — one I had heard nothing but good things about for the year and a half prior that I had spent researching them.

There were many other ways this leader hurt me, and I won’t go into all of it here. I was fortunate to only work with him for the first half of my assignment, and he was then replaced by one of the best leaders I’ve ever had.

The second boss still challenged me in important ways, but he exemplified what a true leader should be. He was the type of person who would come and sit down in our office — the office of the lowly subordinates. He would sit down with a smile, genuinely ask how everyone was doing, and listen to what we were thinking, and the ideas we had.

He made everyone feel respected, supported, and encouraged. He was the type of leader who inspired each person who worked for him, to rise up and be a leader in their own way. And in turn, we all thrived in our work.

Back to the first boss — the difficult one. The silver lining with him was this: For my one year South Sudanniversary, he gave me a South Sudan postcard. On the back, he wrote part of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

I knew when I read the full poem for the first time, it would change me. I just didn’t understand how.

I have recently been in communication with someone I met online. We started a conversation about faith, and this person has been asking some fantastic questions.

I am always so moved and amazed when something sparks a conversation around faith. To me, it shows how God moves in the world.

I have written a little about my faith journey. I always like to remind people that I understand how off-putting it can be for one to read about God and faith. I understand how much damage religion has caused in the world. And it always breaks my heart to witness people tearing each other apart because they believe so vehemently that their beliefs and ideas are right.

That’s not for me. I won’t debate theology even though I do actually have some knowledge about the Bible and other faith traditions. I’m not interested in arguing.

I will always only share my experience. My journey. What I believe, and not what I think I know. When it comes to God, what can we ever really know? Even when it comes to ourselves, how much can we really understand?

All I can do is share my story.

Let everything happen to you

Much of my time in South Sudan was damn hard. I struggled with intense loneliness, feeling abandoned by God, exhaustion, extreme chronic stress, and all sorts of trauma.

There was also incredible beauty. I met some of the most amazing people and witnessed some of the most inspiring stories.

The one thing I never doubted, for some strange reason, is that I was supposed to be there. I heard this recurring message, from very early on that I was supposed to “just experience this”. I was to bear witness. To everything.

Beauty and terror

Life is full of beauty and terror. There’s no escaping this truth. We can do everything we can think of to run and hide from it. To numb. To deny it. To pretend and make it seem like only beauty exists.

About a year ago, I was sitting in my therapist’s office. I had just gotten done telling her about an anxiety attack I’d recently had. “What can I do to make it stop next time?” I asked, desperately. A few moments passed before I answered my own question: “Oh, maybe it’s ok to just let it happen.”

Maybe it is ok.

Just keep going

After the anxiety attack — the crying and freaking out about computer screens and social media and technology — I slept and felt better the next day.

Then I wrote about it. Then it became part of the shared story of humanity. What would calm and peace be without chaos and anxiety? If we spent our entire lives “happy”, would we even understand what it means to be happy? And don’t get me wrong, I love happiness. I just don’t think it’s the only point of life.

While I lived in South Sudan, I had a chalkboard created for my living room space. The chalkboard hung on what I had dubbed my creativity wall. One day, I took a piece of chalk and wrote, “The death of idealism?” and then brainstormed all of my thoughts on the topic.

I still haven’t worked out all the things living in South Sudan taught me. It might take me a lifetime to pen that experience well enough. What I do know is that I learned to look reality in the face.

I learned that it’s ok to have ideals, but you also need to understand how things work, in reality. I learned that putting one foot in front of the other is sometimes the most profound action we can take.

No feeling is final

This lesson is one of my favorites, and one of the most frustrating. I still struggle to put this into practice today. I believe that we have the power to observe our thoughts and decide how they are going to make us feel. I believe we can achieve greater awareness of the experiences of our minds, and create better outcomes from that awareness.

I was fortunate enough to attend a counseling retreat just a couple months after I returned home from South Sudan. One of the things that stuck with me was learning about this thing called an awareness wheel.

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It was the first time I had thought about my thoughts that way. Like, ohhh. When something happens outside of myself, I get to decide how to feel about that. And part of deciding how to feel about that is developing a greater awareness of my thoughts.

My mind was freaking blown. It makes me feel a little silly to admit that but it’s true. It felt like my emotional intelligence grew 100% with that one lesson. Putting it into practice? Much harder than ooo-ing and ahh-ing about it as a theory.

Anger, for example, can be scary when it seems to appear so suddenly and violently. Handling my anger is definitely a challenge, and I’m working on it. And it’s complicated because anger really can be a good thing.

Don’t let yourself lose me

The person I’m in conversation with about faith recently shared the agony they feel about wanting big signs from God. I SO GET THIS FEELING. And it is not fun. The times I remember feeling this way were times of darkness, times of deepest depression.

It’s one of the worst kinds of pain to be in a place of demanding proof from a being you can only relate to by faith. I’m not saying I don’t believe God speaks and gives signs. I do. But when my relationship with God is based on needing signs, I’m suffering.

My faith in God has survived a lot. And I think one of the greatest reasons is that I was forced to decide for myself whether or not I wanted to continue the relationship. I had to stop expecting God to convince me, and respond as a thinking person to all I had been shown.

After letting everything happen to me: looking reality in the face, seeing beauty and terror so viscerally and close, doubting everything and crying out to God wondering why in the fuck he would allow so much suffering EVEN THOUGH I STILL DIDN’T BELIEVE IT WAS GOD’S FAULT, continuing to put one foot in front of the other even when it felt like my thinking self was carrying my feeling self on her back because I was so numb and dissociated — after all of this, I still didn’t let myself lose God.

I couldn’t. We’ve been through too much. I don’t think I will ever be able to lose God. And I guess that might sound weird, and I’ll never be able to properly explain myself.

I always get shy about sharing this stuff. I know it might make me sound crazy to some people. And I have doubts all the time, and I feel crazy quite often. It’s called faith for a reason.

But I can’t deny my experience. Meeting God is the most amazing thing to ever happen to me. Because of God, I have learned what love is. I have learned that I am beautiful even with my flaws.

I have learned that grace and peace are radical but worth fighting for. I have learned that even in the darkest of times, there is still light.

I have learned that when you let everything happen to you, there will be healing and redemption. There will be growth.

Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here. I’m not advocating to blindly stand by and let someone abuse you. We can and should use our voices to speak truth and power.

But life stuff? The stuff we cannot predict or control? Some of it is beautiful and some of it is terrible. That is a reality. When we reach a place of accepting reality, we can begin learning how to cope better. We learn how to survive, and even thrive in the midst of it all.

As I look back at my experience with the two bosses, I’m grateful I got to experience their different leadership styles. They both, in their own ways, taught me about the kind of leader I want to be.

It’s ironic that I had two wildly different bosses, and that the first one represented part of my experience with “terror” in South Sudan — yet he shared something of such great beauty.

Here is Rilke’s poem in full. May it be of benefit to you as well:

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.
Embody me.

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.

~Book of Hours, I 59

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