The storybook life is everywhere. Disney characters are on every imaginable brand just as movies with happy endings rate higher with the critics. The main character always lands the promotion, gets the girl and lives in a picket fence house happily ever after. With images such as these, it is no wonder that when one face’s doubts and difficulties, the value of a life can feel somehow less than others. Often this type of revelation is followed by a dark night of the soul, a period of time in which all is called to question. It is the dark place that exists in all of us that we often choose to ignore. We dress it up with optimistic stories, beautiful pictures and by telling ourselves that we are okay.
There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
~ Carl Gustav Jung
I find this revealed most when speaking to young adults. The thing I hear repeated most often from graduating students is that they “just want to be happy” and “be successful”. I am never sure how to receive this. I know that happiness is an impossible emotion to bottle. I also know that success is measured in many ways, not just wealth and accolades. I wish I could tell them the truth without burdening their souls. The truth is that life is hard. There are any number of times in which sadness, depression, faithlessness and despair are the ruling emotions. The question is not whether we will experience a dark night of the soul, but rather how we will handle it when it arrives.
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally. A higher paradox confounds the emotion as well as reason and there are long periods in the lives of all of us, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive. Witness the dark night of the soul in individual saints . . .”
The human condition is one of examining, suffering, loving and hundreds of other states of being. It is what makes us human. Without these trying times how would we ever evolve and become who we are meant to be? If I had never lived through a difficult relationship that was crushing in so many ways, how would I ever recognize the value of a loving and genuine relationship? If I had never been on the brink of homelessness with two young children how would I ever see the value of stability and the kindness of strangers? If I had never experienced illness and all of the uncertainty that comes with it how would I ever find solace in having faith that all will be well? You see, it really is only in the moments passing through the dark night of the soul and upon arriving on the other side, that we experience grace in all of its beauty. It is as if the curtain in a dark room is opened, and the light is let in for the first time.
Place no hope in the feeling of assurance, in spiritual comfort. You may well have to get along without this. Place no hope in the inspirational preachers of Christian sunshine, who are able to pick you up and set you back on your feet and make you feel good for three or four days–until you fold up and collapse into despair. Self-confidence is a precious natural gift, a sign of health. But it is not the same thing as faith. Faith is much deeper, and it must be deep enough to subsist when we are weak, when we are sick, when our self-confidence is gone, when our self-respect is gone.
With this understanding, the happiness culture of today needs a reality check. Yes, happiness is a wonderful attribute as well as gratitude for all that is given and received. But living in happiness at all times is a recipe for disaster. It is a masking of what is real and an untruth of the greatest sort. Showing uncertainty and fear is not a weakness but strength. Children should see their parents cry when called for. Stoicism is not a valuable expression of love to model. Partners should have the difficult conversations about misgivings and disillusionment. By revealing this to another, the potential for a deeper connection is created. Living fully in both the darkness and light, we are here wholeheartedly and embracing the journey rather than the singular moment.
Nobody said it would be easy, and it certainly is not. It takes many years for a diamond to be formed from rock. Years of thrashing from the elements are required to shape and mold this precious jewel. I like to think our souls are like the diamond, slowly being etched out from all of the burdens and joys of a lifetime made ready to shine.