The stamina of an old, long-noble race
in the eyebrows’ heavy arches. In the mild
blue eyes, the solemn anguish of a child
and, here and there, humility—not a fool’s,
but feminine: the look of one who serves.
The mouth quite ordinary, large and straight,
composed, yet not unwilling to speak out
when necessary. The forehead still naive,
most comfortable in shadows, looking down.
This, as a whole, just hazily foreseen—
never, in any joy or suffering,
collected for a firm accomplishment;
and yet, as though, from far off, with scattered
a serious, true work were being planned.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, Self-Portrait, 1906
Rilke wrote this after three decades on the planet, with an assessment of himself that doesn’t leap out for its enthusiasm, nor with overt criticism. Here was a man who was planning great things for himself but knew he had a long climb ahead. He apprenticed with Auguste Rodin around the time he wrote this, and got a sense of what the singular pursuit of mastery looks like. And he’d apply it to himself.
Rilke’s future was hazy, but he could sense his own potential. He sought an apprenticeship to learn how to cross the chasm from average to master himself. The last line betrays his belief in bigger things. I don’t speak German, and thus rely on the translation. Here is his original:
Das, als Zusammenhang, erst nur geahnt;
noch nie im Leiden oder im Gelingen
zusammgefaßt zu dauerndem Durchdringen,
doch so, als wäre mit zerstreuten Dingen
von fern ein Ernstes, Wirkliches geplant.
So here we are, collectively emerging from the shadow of a couple of dark years and looking squarely in the face of a new year. New possibilities. What do we make of it? What do we sacrifice or say no to in pursuit of our plans? For in looking inward for the answer we must wrestle with the question of what we might leave behind. The comfort of the familiar pulls us backwards. The only choice is moving ahead. Should we dare act on what we’ve foreseen.