Dark Night of the Soul
Recently a friend of mine, Sarah, described her descent into hell. She found herself becoming increasingly anxious and overwhelmed. She went to numerous doctors and felt that she would never get better. She started drinking and soon was out of control. Finally, suicidal and drunk, she was admitted to a chemical dependency program.
During this six month period, she felt that she descended into a state of total despair. After her 28 day program, and with the support of her friends and family, she slowly found her way out of her despondency.
Back to her job as a teacher, she feels that every day is a gift. “My life has changed”, she says, “I find myself appreciating the smallest things that I previously took for granted”. She had been through, what I would call, “the dark night of the soul”.
I studied with a psychologist, Dr. Gelberman, who had lost both his wife and young daughter in the Holocaust during World War II. He had been given a visa to come to the U.S. The visas for his family were stolen in a cruel trick. As a result, his family died in a concentration camp. He went through a period of extreme desolation, his dark night, but he emerged as a different person—filled with light and hope.
Dr. Victor Frankl, in his book “The search for meaning” (an amazing read!) described his experiences in a concentration camp. Surrounded by death and despair, he clung to life, despite all of the misery he experienced. He found a way to maintain hope and love. Fortunately, most of us have not experienced the depth of descent that Drs. Frankl or Gelberman endured. But many of us have had our own “dark nights” where we had intense suffering. In the dawn, after enduring our own anguish, we found meaning and purpose. We discovered strength and hope.
When I was 13 years old, in the same year, my grandmother died suddenly (she lived with us) and my parents divorced. It was a very painful and frightening time for me. My brothers were off in college, and I felt completely alone. I remember making the decision, in the middle of a particularly dark night, that I would never allow my suffering to become an excuse. It was a vow that helped my find my way during my teen years.
We all have friends and relatives that have experienced the unanticipated loss of loved ones, financial downturn, sudden illness, or other painful circumstances. These experiences can lead to a feeling of despair and hopelessness. We wonder—“why me?” despite our intellectual knowledge that none of us have protection from the twists and turns of life. It is possible to feel victimized and bitter. But it is also possible to find meaning and strength, and like Sarah, to come to appreciate the small, but beautiful facets of life.
Dr. Frankl, reflecting on his own experience, commented: “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed. For what then matters is to bear witness to the uniquely human potential at its best, which is to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves”.
As a psychologist, I have seen many children and adults who have experienced intense suffering. I have the privilege to bear witness to these dark nights. But after listening to their stories, I am always amazed at our ability to find our way, even when we feel lost and alone. We don’t have control over events that occur around us. But we do have control over how we face these challenges and how we come to know ourselves in a deeper way. And when we come up for air—we can, like Sarah, appreciate the beauty of creation.