A poem by Rilke, translated by Robert Bly as “Man Watching,” begins with the poet’s reflection on an approaching storm, then widens the focus to consider the immense forces that hammer and rearrange us humans, as wind whips trees and beats down grasses. If we only fight the small things, Rilke writes, we claim proportionately small victories. However, if we grapple with great and worthy foes, we may not win the battle, but we garner in the process some of our opponent’s strength, vitality, and even majesty.
Rilke considers the angel that biblical Jacob fought. There they were, angel and man, tussling at the foot of the ladder to heaven. Surely the angel could have made a quick end to the match and the man, but that didn’t happen. What Jacob wanted from the confrontation was something bigger than winning. “I will not let you go till you bless me,” he rages in the biblical telling. Winning, Rilke concludes, does not tempt the one who wrestles angels: “This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, / by constantly greater beings.”
The angel we must all now wrestle is Earth’s revolt against generations of abuse, manifesting as climate change, the death of species, contamination of soil, air and waters, the mistreatment of animals bred for food, and so much more.
The great teacher and author Joanna Macy insists that this crisis we face is both tragedy and spiritual opportunity. We can’t waste all our energy trying to “defeat” climate change, she says in a 20-minute video by Old Dog Documentaries, recently excerpted from a longer 2013 interview. Instead, we must focus on building new ways of living, growing food, going to school, defining a national economy. “The greatest gift we can give our world is our full presence,” Macy says. “Don’t let urgency deprive you of your capacity to let life through the biggest doorway of your being!”
When we let in the fate of the Earth, we of course feel frightened and angry. Yet by wrangling those feeling with all our might, we invite a greater angel to pummel us into a new life of creativity, empowerment, and wonder.