No matter our season of life, there are places within us that are struggling to come to life, while other things are needing to die. This is a process of life, difficult yet so deeply needed. I have recently been drawn to the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke (1875-1926), born and raised in Prague yet identified with the German-speaking world. He lived his life in self-imposed exile, constantly traveling all over Europe, and his poetry reflects themes of that exile and living in the margins.
In one of his poems, The Man Watching, one of the stanzas ends: “This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings.” How does that make sense? That to grow, we must be defeated, and decisively at that? Isn’t growth about constantly triumphing with greater steps of victory and achievement? Rilke understood that growth involves struggle, and that struggle is against odds that often seem greater than we can reasonably face.
In a beautiful book of meditations by Ken Gire, Windows of the Soul, given to me by a dear friend recently (thanks Sandy!), he writes about this concept that Rilke uses: “Is this how I was to grow–as a person, as a writer–by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings? Not by mastering theology, but by being thrown to the ground and held there, face mashed against the dirt, breath straining at the joints, burning, popping, tearing loose.” (pg. 117) Gire wrote this in the context of a multi-year struggle to become a writer, to grow in coherence with a sense of life calling that didn’t seem to be happening at the speed he desired.
Not a very appetizing metaphor for growth, to be thrown to the ground and have our faces mashed into the dirt. Many years ago in a particularly difficult period of my life in India, I kept remembering a movie with Tom Cruise, I think it was called The Samurai or something like that. In one scene, Cruise is learning the fighting techniques involved in achieving growth as a developing samurai warrior. Again and again, he rises up after being knocked into the dirt by the master, only to be knocked down again. It is such a painful sequence, but he just keeps getting up. Finally he rises up one last time, and the master lets him stay on his feet. It wasn’t as profound as Rilke’s poetry, but this image did seem to define my own struggles to stay on my feet and not give up.
We are all growing of course every day. Or going backwards. Or even plateaued. But there are seasons where particular growth is required of us, and it seems all we can do is try and keep getting up off the ground, only to be knocked down again ‘by greater powers’. That might be circumstances of life, our health, the rejection of a loved one, the betrayal of a close friend, or so many other things. Our face is mashed into the ground, every joint hurts with the sheer struggle to survive. And yet we keep rising to our feet, bloodied but not bowed.
Ken Gire continues to write of another season like this in his life: “Something inside me was struggling to be born. Something else was struggling not to die. And they were both inside me at the same time, winter and spring, contesting each other. The ending of one was necessary for the beginning of the other. A new beginning. I sensed it, sensed a seasonal shift within me. A stirring of the soul. A feeling of some germinating seed was unfurling itself.” (pg. 217)
These “seasonal shifts” happen within us. Or within our families, or nations. I wish growth happened without a struggle, but I fear it is not to be. I’m reminded of the strange but so powerful story in Genesis 32, where Jacob wrestles through the night with an angelic being. The result of the encounter (Jacob loses) is that his name is changed and identity transformed, but his opponent grips the sinew of his thigh and he is left with a limp for the rest of his life.
The struggle for our new name and enhanced identity also involves struggle. A struggle that will leave us with the imprint of the dirt on our face, the limp in our stride. But that very brokenness becomes our treasure. The smell of dirt becomes an aroma of grace that others experience.
We never know how important that act of getting up and struggling to keep growing will be for the generations to come.