“Sometimes silence makes the loudest sound.”
– Author Unknown
“Do you know how old my father was when he died?”
I shook my head, unsure how best to respond.
“Sixty. Dad was 60 when he died, tired, beaten down and defeated. I turned 60 this past July. I always wanted to live longer than the old man, but now that I’m here, I really don’t care.” The comments frightened me. Here was someone giving up on life. Someone standing on the precipice, looking down at the waves and rocks below and (by speaking with me) firing one last flare into the night sky before leaning forward and allowing gravity to carry him away.
The 16th-century Spanish poet and mystic Saint John of the Cross referred to moments of desperation and despair – of giving in and giving up – as the Dark Night of the Soul.
Most of us have experienced dark places where it seemed there was no escape. Perhaps the foundation upon which we had built our life had suddenly collapsed, and a deep sense of meaninglessness had overshadowed hope. Profoundly depressed, nothing makes sense anymore, and everything seemed so lacking in purpose – leaving us no reason to persist.
Sometimes our dark night is touched off by the loss of a loved one or end of a relationship, aging and illness, physical or emotional abuse, career disappointments or ongoing dissatisfaction with life. It is at these times we are forced to relinquish or reassess everything that defines who we are, including activities, achievements, status, goals and even expectations.
Imagine a house on fire. Perhaps you’ve seen one. There’s a brief moment before the building collapses and is consumed by the flames when we can see the framework that held it erect and the construct that gave it form. The dark night is the collapse of the conceptual framework of our life – of what gave it meaning. As odd as it might seem, this collapse is often a necessary, even vital aspect of building a new and even more vibrant and purposeful existence.
If you’re in that dark place right now and feeling emotions you never thought you would feel or doing things you never imagined yourself doing, take a look at your life. Chances are, there has been a significant shift that has threatened or caused the conceptual self to collapse.
In the midst of our dark night of the soul, we believe that despair and desperation will never leave us. We become blinded by fear, negativity, and pessimism; our self-esteem plummets as we fixate on the circumstance rather than the potential of a positive outcome.
I have good news for you: with persistence and often the help of others, the dark places do recede. Night does eventually turn into morning. If we view these times of fragility and vulnerability as periods of incubation and positive possibility, we can delve into the soul’s deepest needs and heaviest questions and find healing and a new understanding of life’s meaning.
“All growth is a leap in the dark,” wrote American writer and painter, Henry Miller. “A spontaneous, unpremeditated act without [the] benefit of experience.”
People who have survived the dark night liken it to a rebirth. The dark night is the death of a former concept of self – one that no longer serves. This death can be lingering and painful, but nothing other than the ego and our illusion of self has passed away. Some have called this transformation a spiritual awakening – the birth of our true and authentic self.