This morning, I awoke, not to birdsong or the dappled sunlight dancing through my bedroom curtains as I do many days. Instead, my heart was pounding after a dream in which I was feeling lost, terrified, violated and confused as to how to remedy the situation. My usual resourcefulness had gone off-line, and I wondered where in my waking life I was feeling that way.
One need not go much further in determining that the world is a scary place at the moment. I know that those who survived war, famine, imprisonment, abuse and other forms of devastation may justifiably say that what we are experiencing at this time in history are echoes of what came before. In my 60 years on the planet, I have not seen the like. Since the election in 2016, each day has brought with it even more unthinkable atrocities. Many of those who “show up, stand up and speak out,” feel a sense of outrage fatigue and its companion resistance fatigue. An important question is, “What can concerned people do to quell the violence and halt the violations of human decency?”
This is an overlay for many who show up in my therapy office. Some who are already experiencing their personal pain find it is exacerbated by the state of the world. They raise the subject, shaking their heads and holding out their hands as if in supplication and the hope that the answers will land in their open palms. I wish they would.
I sit with children and adults who are in turmoil at times as a result of anxiety, depression, death of loved ones, physical debilitation, financial challenges, relationship rending, child custody issues, addiction and in some cases, their own impending death. Easy to understand how they could use some light shining in the dark corners. I do my best to provide a safe haven for their hearts and minds, even as I sometimes feel powerless to change their external circumstances.
When I researched the origin of the concept, I discovered that the phrase “dark night of the soul” has as its origins a poem by St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Spanish Carmelite monk and mystic, whose Noche obscura del alma is translated “The Dark Night of the Soul.” This eight-stanza poem outlines the soul’s journey from the distractions and entanglements of the world to the perfect peace and harmony of union with God. According to the poet, the “dark night of the soul” is synonymous with traveling the “narrow way” that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 7:13-14.
Even those who are not of a spiritual bent, may have had such an experience in which, no matter where they turn, it seems the path is blocked. It is more than a sense of sadness, more than the inevitable blues that come calling. Although the symptoms of clinical depression may be contributing factors, it can be exacerbated when one has a belief (entrenched or fleeting) that the situation will not improve.
Historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl have valiantly faced their own lengthy dark nights that they could justifiably believe would never have them see the light of day. Somehow, they parted the heavy shroud of despair that could have overtaken them indefinitely.
The Atlantic published an article entitled “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy”. In it, author Emily Esfahani Smith quotes psychiatrist and humanitarian Viktor Frankl, whose revolutionary book, Man’s Search For Meaning, informed generations about “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” This is an individual who endured horrific conditions in concentration camps and lost all of his family members in the Holocaust. He knew people who decided to die as soon as they walked through the gates and others who chose to live as fully as they could in the most unthinkable surroundings.
Once the camps were liberated, he wrote the book and it reinforced the belief in goodness in the midst of evil and affirmed, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Ways to shine a light in your life
- Look at areas in your life where the light does shine. What are the blessings you have right now? A home, a car, food in the refrigerator, a job, and people who love you could be on your list.
- Tally your successes. What have you accomplished in your life? Chances are you have learned how to tie your shoes, ride a bike, drive a car, graduate from high school or earned your GED, secure and maintain a job or launch a career, and acquire a myriad of skills.
- Take an inventory of what challenges you have already overcome and remember how you got through them.
- Who is on your support team? Family, friends, therapist, 12 step sponsor, mentor, coach, teacher, clergy are possible light bringers for you.
- If you do have a spiritual practice, use it as a therapeutic tool. Prayer, meditation, acts of service to others, time in nature, journaling your insights can be restorative. Can you see them as symbolic flashlights, lanterns or candles?
- Find a purpose that fulfills you. What lights you up from the inside? Where do you feel your talents can best be used?
- Acknowledge your wounds. They occurred. They are real. When we deny our inner injuries, we may subject ourselves to re-wounding. The only caveat is not to ‘push on the boo boo’.
The inevitable dark nights of the soul have been unwelcome companions, and yet some of them have also brought me the most powerful personal breakthroughs. At times, I have resisted them mightily, attempting to take a spiritual bypass, a phrase that was coined by transpersonal psychologist John Welwood. I have up leveled my emotions, raised my vibration, taken a few steps up the energetic ladder, in an effort to keep from looking at the messy stuff of life. I have laughed in the face of death, danced with my gremlins and channeled my “inner Annie” as I sang “The sun’ll come out tomorrow.”