Embracing the Dark Night of the Soul

If you promise not to tell the former dean of my undergrad honor’s college, I’ll confess a little secret to you.  I worked in the dean’s office for a couple years of work study.  It was a great little job.  Mostly I just copied and filed. 

In my job, I had access to all the student records.  I didn’t usually abuse that privilege, but c’mon.  When you have your own admissions file staring straight at you, complete with the reflections and comments from the faculty, who isn’t going to look? 

I attended a church-affiliated liberal arts university.  Not one of those church-affiliated universities whose mission is to indoctrinate its students, but the kind that wants to find the artful balance of spiritual growth and academic knowledge.  The honors college, in particular, strove to cultivate critical thinkers through an interdisciplinary program bringing together literature, philosophy, history, theology, the arts, and the sciences.  In other words, everything meets a critical lens.  Every faith, tradition, interpretation, and history is examined, broken apart, and reflected upon.  A common refrain among us students proclaimed that they would spend our first year tearing us down, so the last 3 years could be spent building us back up.

Back to my espionage.  One comment about the personal statement I wrote as part of my application stood out.  I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was something along the lines of, “She’ll do fine with the academics, but will probably struggle as her black and white faith is challenged.”  They weren’t wrong.

I’d always been a spiritual seeker of sorts.  I remember grappling to understand theological concepts like the triune god, free will versus predestination, and concepts of good and evil when I was all of 5 years old.  Somewhere along the line I learned that most adults didn’t want to spend time grappling with those questions with me, and I learned that I’d typically get trite answers to my very real and personal struggles, so I stopped asking them.  I dove into the false security of black and white certainty and became a Bible-thumping, unquestioning zealot.  With hindsight, I don’t know that this was working very well for me, as those were also the years when I struggled with eating disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation, but when you aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and spiritual anxiety, you cling to black and white extremes.  So, I did.

College, indeed, challenged this black and white faith.  And I completely fell apart.  What I thought I knew suddenly seemed unfamiliar and no longer fit.  I never really gave up on my spiritual seeking, but I wished I could have.  Instead, I believed that spiritual life and growth was important, but simply couldn’t find a way to connect with my spiritual sense.  It would have been easier to simply not care any longer. 

I was experiencing a phase of spiritual development often called “The Dark Night of the Soul.”  It is not fun.  But, according to most theorists and observers of spiritual development, it is a phase of development that is crucial for growth.  We often do need to be torn apart before we can find a new, more enlightened, more peace-filled way to rearrange our pieces and put ourselves back together. 

Spiritual anxiety is not, in and of itself, bad.  It is essential.  We rarely have the foresight to know what will bring us to the dark night.  For me, it was holding my beliefs under the close scrutiny and microscope of college.  Two decades later, it was a series of family tragedies. Two decades from now it might be something else.  For those of us thoughtful, reflective, questioning, sensitive souls, we often find it at one or more times in our lives.  And when we’re in it, it is difficult.  It is hard.  Our whole world is flipped upside down, spinning, and standing still all at the same time.  It is a time of insecurity and uncertainty.   And it is good.

With all the existential issues going on in today’s world, some of you, and some of your children, might be in their own dark night.  Here’s what I want to offer you.

It is painful, but is it necessary.

Even if you feel alone, you are not.

Even if it feels like it will go on for forever, it will not.

Remind yourself or your child of this.  Allow yourself to grapple, question, and be unsure.  Sit with your child in their questions.  Resist the urge to answer their questions with platitudes and simple answers designed to make yourself feel better, but that will only contribute to their isolation.

Remember that unpleasant does not equal bad.  It might feel icky, but it might be good.  Growth usually comes with pain.

And, remember that there will be an end.  I cannot guarantee when that end will be, but someday, the pieces will come back together.

It was during my second dark night, about 2 decades after the college one, when I found myself driving in the midst of an extremely dense fog.  I couldn’t see more than 5 yards ahead of me.  I had no idea what was next to me, behind me, or in front of me.  I was in a spiritual and literal swirling mess of darkness.  I cried out to the universe in that moment, feeling like I needed the pieces to come together more quickly, feeling like I simply couldn’t handle the darkness one moment longer.  Believe it or not, at that exact moment, the fog ended.  It didn’t slowly lift or fade away.  It abruptly ended.  I had driven to the end of the low hanging cloud.  One moment it was dark and I could see nothing, and the next I was blinking in the brightness of sunshine and clarity.  50 yards earlier, I had no idea I was so close to the light.

I can tell you it wasn’t fun driving in the fog.  But, I can also tell you that I appreciated and saw the clarity of the light far more because of it.  The dark night of the soul is not fun, but the light might just be right around the corner.  Embrace it all.


I'm honored to have this post included in this month's Hoagies' Gifted Education Blog Hop on Spiritual Anxiety.  Check out the other insightful posts here.