An Emotional Rescue in the Dark Night of the Soul *
By GINA BARECCA
The Hartford Courant
August 06, 2001
Ready for some tough questions this morning?
What’s your demon? What’s your nightmare?
What wakes you up in the middle of the night – not in fear but in the threshing buzz of low-grade panic?
The dread of being alone? Of getting older? Of illness? Of death? Of being unable to help alleviate the sadness of those close to you?
I have a friend, a woman I consider one of the blessings in my life, who is facing a whole bunch of those nightmares right now. Her nightmares are sitting there at the kitchen table with her. Maybe you know her; maybe you are her. Many of us have been where she is, in the dark night of the soul, at some point -but when you are inside the tumble and hiss of the bad time, it is almost impossible to imagine rescue or survival.
But we, more or less, survive. Either the worst happens, or it doesn’t. We brush up against the savage edge of loss and cut ourselves, counting ourselves lucky to have been only scarred, only mangled.
Because there are worse possibilities: those times when you can’t back away and you can’t move out of range; the edge saws away until it can no longer be borne.
Or change the image. The hurricane that obliterates everything in its path goes through a place we once thought safe as if to teach one lesson: Nowhere is safe. At least not forever. At least not all the time. Happy times and bad times move through our lives like the weather. There are accurate predictions to be made, but there is nothing to be done when a force of nature moves in. You can see the horizon darkening, but whether you run to it or flee from it, you cannot change what will happen. You are stuck in that moment of time, with only yourself as your shelter.
So what is there to say when someone you love is deep inside that storm?
Or change the image again: What is there to say when a friend is playing a part in a great tragedy, on a stage too removed, too terrible and too awesome for you to offer help? You can’t shout out lines because the script is not yours to invent; you can’t offer to replace her in the part because it is not your role. What is there to say that does not trivialize pain by offering sentimentality or that does not show disrespect by offering mere palliatives?
What I want to say to my friend is this: I honor you as you move through this time. Not as a martyr or saint full of gracious sorrow, but as a fighter, as a warrior, as someone engaged in a contest for her soul, as someone who refuses to surrender to despair or to plot a coward’s escape.
And I would remind her of an old story:
Late one night, three demons decided to ambush a woman who lived alone. The three demons were manifestations of her worst nightmares: fear, anxiety, and despair. They made a racket, breaking things, ruining what she held dear, disfiguring what she cherished. Gleefully, they spent hours immersed in their rampage. They were enormously confident because they figured she was all alone and past her first youth, so why should they stop?”
They went at it for hours, into the darkest part of midnight. The woman they were tormenting was almost inconsequential; the destruction of her world had little to do with her.
When she started to build a fire at the hearth, therefore, they barely glanced over. But the demons became more thoroughly distracted when they noticed her busily setting out a kettle.
Wary now, they ratcheted up their activities. When she calmly set out three cups nevertheless, they stopped in their tracks. Her hands weren’t even shaking. She looked calm, if weary.
“What are you doing?” they cried in unison, breathless from their tasks of destruction. “We are everything in the world that is against you. Why are you boiling water and setting out dishes?”
The woman stared at them and tolerantly shook her head as she opened the cupboard. “I know all of you by now. You’ve been here before, and you’ll be here again. You might as well make yourselves at home.”
Raising one eyebrow and fully meeting their gaze without rancor, wholly in possession of herself, she asked familiarly, “What kind of tea would you like?”
* This column has been re-formatted for free distribution to the public, with the consent and permission of the author, Gina Barecca