Uncertainty, Fear, and the Dark Night of the Soul


Fear of the Future

I sat in bed, leaning against the headboard, looking out the window at the full-moon glow that spread across the deck. Though the image was serene, I couldn’t feel the peace. The day’s news had depleted me, and I felt heavy with a sense of loss and helplessness.

I thought about the pipeline that will be built no matter what we say or do, fouling water, defiling graves, and wounding a Native American community, yet again. I worried about the crackdown on immigration that has Hispanics and refugees afraid to leave their homes, that if enacted, will break up families, shatter lives, weaken our economy, and make us more, not less, vulnerable. I fretted that the Affordable Care Act would be dismantled, that once again the poor will have to go to emergency rooms to get treatment, that they will end up too sick to work, lose jobs and homes, and die young.

Sunrise above the hills - uncertainty and fear and darkness yield to the light, image by Christian Puta, cropped, from unsplash

Our current administration lives in and promotes an alternate reality that gives them license to destroy our environment, abuse our citizenry, and free corporations to seek the greatest financial profit regardless of the cost in human suffering. And this is just the beginning.

Uncertainty and the Dark Night of the Soul

We live in uncertain times, yet all times are uncertain, really. People are afraid these days, but not just because our country is in turmoil. As was true a year ago, people are dying. They go to treatment centers not knowing if they will stay sober this time. They lose jobs, they can’t pay the rent. Domestic violence, sex trafficking, the chaos of mental illness leave us shaken, desperate, and alone.

When I was in seminary, I wrote an article about the dark night of the soul. During a dark night, we feel sad, we may even despair, yet we do not get lost in the lethargy and heaviness of depression. In the morning, we can get up and exercise and go to work. Life may seem meaningless, suffering may feel overwhelming, yet our life goes on.

In his book, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Growth, Gerald May explains that the this restless and painful time “is the transition from bondage to freedom.” [1] Though a dark night is uncomfortable, within the darkness lies fertility, an opportunity for the soul to rest, feed, and transform.

Obscura

The term dark used by St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila is obscura. The darkness they experienced was not black, nor was it evil. Instead, it was obscure, confusing, uncertain. We fear this darkness because we cannot see through it. Like a mist or a cloud, when we hang lanterns to try to see or flash our headlamps into it, the light reflects on the water droplets and blinds us. We cannot see the way forward. No matter how much we try to predict what will come, to control our destiny, our future is unknown. This is the uncertainty of the dark night, and we feel afraid.

Yet May wonders if this obscurity, this uncertainty, and even our fear, aren’t gifts of the dark night. If we can’t see where we’re going, he reasons, God can guide us, and we won’t be able to run away or sabotage God’s effort because we don’t know the road is or if a path even exists. During a dark night of the soul, all we can do is yield, lie fallow, and wait.

You might say our country is in a dark night now. Though some of us are enthusiastic, eager for the old regime to topple, many of us are afraid. For me, that night feels heavy, the mist so thick, I feel lost. Yet I have felt that way before, and I know I need only wait. Dawn will literally come, and on the morning after that night, when the sun began to lift itself from the depths, I looked out my window and was struck with awe as the horizon lit up with a crimson such as I have not seen in a long time. Deep sadness can birth such breathless beautiful.

Healing Instead of Fixing

That same day, when the sunrise touched my soul, I had lunch with a man who educates the public about sex trafficking. When he tries to promote his projects, he meets with resistance. Who wants to think that girls and boys are truly being victimized this way? Some days, my friend feels powerless and uncertain, baffled, unsuccessful, and overwhelmed by all there he has to do. My friend’s work, like all of ours, is never finished. Way too many people need assistance than we can possibly help, and because of that, some of them don’t make it to safety. Some of them don’t survive.

So he says to himself, “If we can’t help everyone, we can still do something to help some of them.” And he doesn’t try to do his work alone. He depends on God, and like Mother Theresa, he understands that God is not asking him to be successful, only faithful. [2]

This helps when he feels uncertain or afraid. I find it helps me, as well. Because nothing, no matter what he or I or you do, will make all the suffering go away. As Jesus said, we will always have the poor with us. Eden is gone. Fixing is impossible. That does not mean, however, that we cannot heal.

Martin Buber tells a story that explores this.

The Angel and the World’s Dominion

Once upon a time, God unleashed a torrent of pestilence and drought upon the world. From Earth arose a cloud of tears, a cacophony of wails and moans, rising up to the heavens where even those who surrounded God’s throne felt the sadness. One of the angels was especially moved and begged God to let him rule the earth for a year so that he might allow people to live in bliss and wellness.

Although the angels around him gasped at his audacity, God smiled at the angel, looked at him with great love, and granted his wish.

So Earth was blessed with a year of joy and bounty. From the heavens, the angel poured down mercy and kindness, removing illness and poverty, and made the ground grow such a profusion of crops that the people’s storehouses burst with grain. At the end of the year, the angel proudly returned the running of Earth to God, thinking how much he had blessed the people.

Blessings Gone Wrong

Yet it wasn’t long before their wails once again rose up to Heaven. Frightened by what he heard, the angel sailed down to Earth to see what had gone wrong. Dressed as a pilgrim, he entered the first house he came to. The family had threshed and ground the grain, formed it into loaves, and baked it. When they sat down to eat, however, the bread crumbled, fell apart, and tasted like clay. It did not soothe their hunger. At the second house, the third, and in all the homes, the angel found the same thing. Starving, the people cursed God for deceiving them with false blessings.

Flying back to Heaven, the angel knelt at God’s feet and begged him to explain what he had done wrong.

God said, “Behold a truth which is known to me, and only to me from the beginning of time, a truth too deep and dreadful for your delicate, generous hands, my sweet apprentice – it is this, that the Earth must be nourished with putrefaction and covered with shadows that its seeds may bring forth – and it is this, that souls must be made fertile with flood and sorrow, that through them the Great Work may be born.” [3]

Life Cannot Flourish without Death

In other words, no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, life cannot flourish without death. Yes, we can be kinder and gentler without spreading empty blessings. We are here to serve, to support, to nurture the earth and one another. Unfortunately, we tend to assign fault and analyze problems so we can figure out a solution, yet our solution often creates difficulties elsewhere.

No matter what we do, there are consequences, some of them not so joyous. Our desire to build structures and systems that cure and fix comes from our inability to tolerate insecurity, uncertainty, anxiety. We can’t stand to hear the moans and see the tears, so we manipulate our environment, we march and write letters and shout at those we perceive as the enemy. And sometimes we find that the bread we’ve made falls apart and is uneatable.

Why is this so? Not because trying to help is wrong so much as because we try to help from the our perch in the sky. We look down on the people without feeling true compassion. Perhaps we feel sorry for them, or scared for ourselves. It is only when we fly down to earth, we enter the homes of those we think need our help, eat with them, talk to them, work with them, stand beside them, feel their pain, that we will be ready to offer the healing that creates transformation.

Getting to the Other Side

Speaking of our need to descend to earth before we try to help others, Palmer writes, “What we usually learn, once we are there, is that there is no ‘fix’ for the person who suffers, only the slow and painful process of walking through the suffering to whatever lies on the other side.” [4]

This is so difficult. We are all different in their capacity to sit with suffering, of course. Some of us can tolerate uncertainty and anxiety more than others. For some, chaos is terrifying; for others it is exhilarating, the ground of creativity and hope.

To help ourselves, and to help one another, to truly be there so we get to the other side, we must be able to stand in our own pain, to allow our anxiety to wash over us, knowing that nothing in life is certain. Nothing.

Even so, we will survive. As a people, as angels and humans working together, we will make from the rotting vegetation and the darkness of the dirt a grain that nourishes, a bread that holds firm. By listening, breathing, holding, walking, sharing, crying, screaming, building, birthing together, with one another, we will heal and be made whole.

Some days, we feel uncertain. The way ahead is obscure, and we are afraid. This is not the end. Nothing that happens in this next year, or even four years, is the end. After the dark night, the sun rises. Every day, every year, and always.

In faith and fondness

Barbara

Credits

  1. May, Gerald, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005, 132.
  2. Mother Theresa said, “God does not require that we be successful only that we be faithful.”
  3. Palmer, Parker, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999, 79-81.
  4. Ibid 84.

Photo by Christian Puta from Unsplash.

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