Michael Ford, in his biography on Henri Nouwen, tells us how brutally honest Nouwen was emotionally. Sometimes when loneliness, depression, and chaos would threaten to overwhelm him, Nouwen would go to a friend’s house and ask that friend to hold him while he cried. Not an easy thing to do, but in it there is a lesson: When we stare life’s chaos and our own demons fully in the face, someone or something had better be holding us or that darkness will destroy us rather than make us stronger.
Often we are naive about this. Today the idea is omnipresent that we must constantly forsake what is safe and move into the unknown, with all the chaos and demons we will meet there. Hence, we hear voices from all sides telling us that it is bad to play safe, that we must face the chaos, the desert, the dark night, the demons within and around us. This challenge tells us to risk, to abandon safe havens, to face our addictions and fears, to move always towards a greater horizon, and thus surrender ourselves beyond the narrow controls of our own wounded, pride-filled egos. Sound advice? Perhaps.
It is quite true that ultimately this is what is called for. T.S. Eliot once said that home is where we start from and as we move away the pattern becomes ever stranger and more varied. He is right and the pain and confusion that result are a necessary part of growth. To grow is to leave the womb, home, all that is secure. To play safe is to eventually asphyxiate. The gospels tell us that we can reach eternal life only by undergoing the darkness and death of Gethsemane and the cross. The mystics call this the dark night of the soul and assure us that real transformation of soul will not happen at Disneyland but at Calvary. So far the advice is sound.
However there can be a dangerous naivete in all this. The idea is too much that you should just let yourself free fall into the great unknown, with all its darkness and chaos, and growth and happiness are assured. That isn’t always true; far from it. To enter the darkness, to go into the desert, to face your demons, you must first have the assurance that you will be held by someone or something – God, a loved one, a family, a faith that is strong enough to see your through – while undergoing this journey. To let go of a safe haven without this is in place is naive and foolish.
When you let yourself free fall, two things can happen … and one of them is bad. You can fall apart, pure and simple, with no one and nothing to ever set you back together. In the desert, if you are all by yourself, you can be overwhelmed, lose yourself, and die (literally) of depression, dissipation, hopelessness, fear, and loneliness. When you have been through the desert, but now stand before a mirror and no longer know who you are or can no longer find any positive energy to live, laugh, and love, the journey away from safety has done you no favour. Conversely, of course, the journey through chaos can be paschal, it can bring about a wonderful new resurrection. But, to pass through the darkness and chaos, to abandon yourself in trust, you must be sure that you will be held by someone or something when you are falling through the darkness.
We see this in Jesus’ own paschal journey. He entered the darkness and chaos of Gethsemane and the cross, just as he had once entered the desert, not alone but with another. He was being held by his Father, just as Nouwen, during his depressions, let himself be held by his friends. Jesus was in the dark night, free falling, but he wasn’t alone. He surrendered himself and jumped over love’s cliff, but only because he trusted that someone, his Father, would catch him before he hit the ground. All of us might want to ponder that before we counsel ourselves or others to too hastily abandon safety for chaos. The journey from Disneyland to Calvary should not be naively undertaken.
I recently met with a friend, a woman in her mid-thirties, who because of abuse in her childhood is suffering a debilitating addiction. She does not want to stay where she is but has a pretty clear intuition of the pain, chaos, and dangers she will face if she chooses to journey further. For now, she can not move because she is has no assurance that anyone or anything will hold her – as the Father held Jesus in the Garden and on the cross – when the chaos becomes overwhelming.
It is said that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. True, though sometimes things will kill you, if you face them alone. We should therefore be careful and gentle with ourselves and others. The darkness about us is frighteningly deep.