Professional Student of Life
Adventures in personal growth
…That night, that year of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God. ~ Gerard Manley Hopkins
Whoever came up with the term “dark night of the soul?” I wish! In my experience, these times don’t pass in a night, however uncomfortable. That’s how we'd like it to go: let’s get these unpleasant emotions off-stage as soon as possible so that we can get on with the real show, which of course is the pleasant, enjoyable stuff. If things feel uncertain, if we’re sad or lonely or lost or afraid, then something must be wrong and we’d better find the solution, and quick.
The sense of “wrongness,” and even shame, that we have about these desert experiences only adds to their pain. We wonder what’s the matter with us that we can’t seem to just snap out of it. We hide it from our loved ones – and certainly from the all-pervasive social media universe. We even hide it from ourselves. If we’re versed in psychological or New Agey concepts it’s often even worse. We use affirmations, meditations, visualizations to shake ourselves free of the muck. They seem to work temporarily, but I sometimes think this actually prolongs the experience. What would happen if we just accepted the time in the desert, or settled down in the muck, and determined to make ourselves at home there instead?
My favorite author in times like these is Pema Chödrön, the American Buddhist nun. Even the titles of her books are reassuring: When Things Fall Apart, for instance, or The Places That Scare You. Her message, over and over, is not to flee from uncomfortable experiences. She calls this feeling of being lost and uncertain “groundlessness” and even goes so far as to suggest that we cultivate it by “pulling out our own rug.” This takes extreme bravery. Most of us want nothing more than to have a solid sense of grounding under foot, however much of an illusion it is.
The places that scare you – the rocky, barren desert places; the messy, dirty, miring places – may very well hold the most learning and growth for you. Sit in the muck and search around for buried treasure, rather than spending all your energy trying to figure out how to get out! Wander in the desert, marveling at its austere beauty rather than longing for the lush meadow. If it helps, know that you are in good company. Most prophets have spent their time in desert places and come out stronger. Nelson Mandela’s 27 years on Robben Island ended up changing the world.
And eventually, even the longest, darkest night will come to an end.
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