Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Dark Night of the Soul

Being in a bit of a dark night of the soul, I wandered over to my office yesterday, more to see if a friend of mine was in her office down the hall than to actually do real work, as such. She wasn’t. So I checked my mail, my phone messages (none), and the latest e-mail, all the while totally forgetting about one important time-sensitive e-mail I had recently received about someone trying to schedule a telephone conference. (Later I found a phone message at home politely informing me that they had not heard from me, so at least I haven’t missed the phone conference, which is important and happens today. I’m lucky. This little incident alarms me, because it shows that this depressive slump I am currently struggling with is starting to affect my work. My normal state of being is that of having an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.)

So I left my office and wandered over to the bookstore. There’s a café there, and I was hungry, and I thought food might perk me up, but there in the café was a trim and beautiful faculty member I once heard commenting that “Americans eat too much.” So my path shifted, and I found myself heading for the philosophy books. I looked at them blankly. They seemed vaguely threatening. I went around the corner and found psychology and self help books. My eyes fell on one in particular: Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore. Thomas Moore is also the author of Care of the Soul and other related books. I have very much appreciated his writing. So I pulled Dark Nights of the Soul off the shelf, found a chair, sat down, and had a look.

An hour later I was walking out of the store having now purchased the book (but still no food, and I was still hungry).

This book is not for the faint of heart. Part of the reason I bought it was that I was finding it seriously challenging. Moore doesn’t give easy, rational answers. But I find myself deeply comforted by his great respect for the mysterious movements of soul.

Part of the reason I haven’t been writing in my blog as often as I would hope (or attending to my other writing projects very well, lately) is that I have entered some deep wordless state of being. In my concern about my depressive signs, I have started to see a counselor, but there too I find myself less articulate than I am used to being, and strangely reluctant to face the very issues that drove me to seek counseling. So, on top of my concerns about my problems has grown this meta-concern about my faltering ability to engage my problems. Even so, being in counseling feels very right. Just knowing that there is someone keeping an eye on me from week to week is itself enormously therapeutic.

In the face of my bewildering reluctance to face my own problems, Moore’s book reassures me. The movements of soul cannot always be easily explained. But that doesn’t make them irrational or malevolent. The sense I get (I’ve only just dipped into pieces of the book so far) is that Moore trusts that soul seeks balance and wholeness, and in this seeking, will sometimes move against the ways we try to rationalize and control our own lives.

I am fierce and stubborn. I lock strongly onto those paths I deem right and good. I push myself very hard.

And in this, I can exhaust myself.

It is not a surprise to consider that something deep in my soul is finally rebelling. It takes a peculiar kind of courage to relax my overdeveloped sense of responsibility and just let myself be totally frivolous in these few remaining days of my sabbatical, even though I haven’t accomplished all that I had hoped to accomplish.

My work is full of words: the spoken words of teaching; the written words of all of my writing projects. My work is full of rationalism as I explore questions about what knowledge is, about the role of science in society today, even as I critique our culture’s idolization of rationalism (with my oh-so-rational critiques: they have to be rational, if I’m not to preach just to the converted). And so it is no wonder that my soul moves me to wordless depths, and moves me to simply regard the patchwork of my dilemmas without trying to piece them together into pretty patterns or pictures. Instead, I keep them messily strewn about. I find their very incoherence strangely fascinating.

I will not be in this state forever. But Moore’s book has given me permission to admit out loud that I’m secretly having fun with this. No, I’m not feeling productive. No, I can’t say I’m exactly happy, as such. But it is a relief to let go of words, and to refuse to try to make sense of things or to solve all the problems. Just let them be. Just look at them. Or, better yet, avert my gaze from them. Glance aside. Move beyond even images. Listen to the deeps. Radically trust the world and God’s love to hold me even when I myself am feeling disoriented and ineffective. Trust that when there is something for me, uniquely, to do, I will know then and be ready. But, until then, just be.

All my life, I have lived apologetically. My soul perhaps is leading me to the more secure grounding of an unapologetic existence.


  1. Thanks for sharing and being so transparent. I, too, have entered a "bloglessness" - I just don't know that I have anything to share, or that perhaps it's too deep to share. I find the same in my daily life as well: bleck.

    A friend of mine once explained depresssion as "mourning the loss of something" - a person, an object, a dream, an ideal, part of your personhood. To mourn requires going through a cycle of steps, to be patient, to be tender and sensitive. None of that sounds fun, eh? But it helps me when I get in that slump to say, "It's a process. I have to go through the process - on my time, in my way."

    That, and a really good cup of coffee or bowl of sugar-free ice cream seems to help. :) Blessings to you in the journey! And thanks for the book recommendation: I don't know if it'd be a good thing to read as the autumn/winter months approach or not. :)

  2. Aj,

    Thank you for your understanding and support! Your reminder to be patient with the process is very helpful. So is your advice to find some good coffee or sugar-free ice cream!

    And your (your friend's) observation that depression is mourning loss got me thinking: what am I mourning the loss of? This is a good question for me to be considering right now.

  3. Your post speaks to my condition following a very intense week at our Yearly Meeting last week. I just haven't felt grounded again since then. And Aj left me a nice comment, too!

    -- Chris M.
    Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

  4. Chris M.,

    Slowly I'm starting to feel grounded again. Your mentioning the intensity at Yearly Meeting made me remember that I once noticed after reading back in my own blog that I'm always a bit unsettled for a week or two after an intense trip. Maybe it has something to do with how to integrate all that we've experienced and learned back into our everyday lives. We don't want to lose the power of these experiences, and so we resist just resuming life as usual. We have to resume our lives, but we try to do so with a new kind of consciousness and a new kind of energy: that honors our newest experiences and marks the ways we have changed. At least this is how I interpret my own post-travel times of unsettledness.

    And I feel I am now re-entering at two levels. When I wrote this posting, I was still adjusting to being back after Boxwood. But my coming back from that trip not only signalled the end of my "summer vacation," but also foreshadowed the very-soon-to-come end of my sabbatical. Today is officially the last day of my sabbatical! Tomorrow I am fully on-duty again as teaching faculty member and chair of my department. So the real test is still ahead. Will I re-engage my busy teaching life differently after not only my sabbatical but a whole series of powerful travel adventures? We shall see...

  5. I too like Thomas Moore's book, Care of the Soul. I've found the process of depression an indispensable, albeit painful, part of the unfolding of consciousness. See my deathmaster blogg for my experiences down the black hole.