The Only Way Out is Through
The first time I heard that I thought, “Damn! I don’t want to go through this. I want to go around it, over it, under it. I want to sleep through it, wake me up when it’s over, fast forward me to happy days are here again.”
“It” is a dark night of the soul, which by the way is a misnomer. It generally is dark “nights”—although I have heard of people who have a spiritual awakening in one night, most notably Eckhart Tolle, who was suddenly enlightened and began immediately writing bestselling books. But for most of us, “a dark night” is a longer period, often a year, maybe even a few years. And if you are simultaneously an agnostic, an atheist and a believer, as I considered myself for most of my life, it is a challenging path out of what feels like hell. (“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Winston Churchill.)
You can, if you want, try to avoid the pain – drinking, drugs, sleeping, lying, stealing, cheating, shopping, sleeping around, eating gallons of ice cream, bags of potato chips, staring at the television, gambling . . . you can do any or all of those things but sooner or later the grief you are avoiding will show up in a meltdown, a pile of debt, another divorce, an illness, an accident, or any number of other possibilities.
My dark night was years of caregiving and then a tsunami of loss. My life became a blank canvas that had to be re-painted at a stage in my life when I was not expecting it. I feel like I should have made a t-shirt for that first year so that if anyone asked me how I was they could just read the t-shirt:
~ separatedmotherdieddaughtermoved3000milesawaynojobnohome2dogs ~
When my dark nights began, people recommended books. First was Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart:
“I used to have a sign pinned up on my wall that read: Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us...It was all about letting go of everything.”
Then came The Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore:
“Many people think that the point of life is to solve their problems and be happy. But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of problems. Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life. That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life. They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having. A dark night, may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to living. It pares life down to its essentials and helps you get a new start.”
I definitely needed a new start, so then I read…
Getting Naked Again: Dating, Romance, Sex, and Love When You've Been Divorced, Widowed, Dumped, or Distracted by Judith Sills. I managed that pretty quickly, thanks to the "divorce diet," it was much easier than I imagined it would be. But it didn’t change anything; I was still deep into my dark nights.
Crazy Time by Abigail Trafford was helpful: “Breaking up a marriage may be as common as Main Street nowadays, but when you finally do it, the psychological experience seems as uncharted as the dark side of the moon.” That made sense to me. And – if you were the complacent partner in the marriage and you suddenly stand up for yourself, all hell breaks loose. I could see that happened in my divorce.
In fact, my divorce was such a nightmare, that I had to turn to the Psalms:
“Even in the midst of great pain, Lord,
I praise you for that which is.
I will not refuse this grief
or close myself to this anguish.
Let shallow men pray for ease:
‘Comfort us; shield us from sorrow.’
I pray for whatever you send me,
and I ask to receive it as your gift.
You have put a joy in my heart
greater than all the world’s riches.
I lie down trusting the darkness,
for I know that even now you are here.”
[Psalm 4, Stephen Mitchell translation]
Somehow that brought me comfort.
Recently, I read this very powerful quote by August Gold:
“To enter the conversation with Life we only have to change one key word: We have to stop asking, ‘Why is this happening to me?' and start asking, 'Why is this happening for me?’ When we can do this, we’re free.”
And this: “Life, as the biblical tradition makes clear, is both loss and renewal, death and resurrection, chaos and healing at the same time; life seems to be a collision of opposites.” Richard Rohr, Falling Upwards.
Over the last twenty or so years, I have watched many friends walk through hell. I didn’t understand how truly difficult their lives were at the time because I had no reference point. I understood it intellectually, but not deeply, not emotionally. I have watched friends deal with cancer and illnesses I’ve never even heard of, deaths of beloved spouses and children, long term caregiving, loss of homes, businesses, jobs, and deeply painful divorces.
Now I understand. Now I understand that no one is immune, nor should they be. I wouldn’t trade any of my dark nights. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.”
The only way out is through – which it is kind of like a birth, or re-birth. It is a path to a more meaningful life, though it might not feel that way at the time. It is the path to a second half of life that is deeper and about tuning out some of the noise of the outside world and listening to that inner voice in the quiet of a dark night.