How to See Your Way Clear Through a Dark Night of the Soul
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.