Several years ago, I met a young man who was working through a very difficult time in his life.
He had graduated with a degree in business ten years before, worked successfully in a job for awhile, but then decided that the corporate world was not for him. He quit his job a bit naively without a definite plan for his future, lived on his savings until they were gone, and then went into a painful free-fall where he found himself living out of his car, in friends’ houses, or at the mercy and good-will of whoever would take him in. The few dollars he now earned from dish-washing were spent on tuition, for courses in literature and theology.
But his free-fall wasn’t just economic. It was emotional as well. His self-image, his confidence, and his relationships all took a massive beating. Family and friends were less than sympathetic and understanding. Their eyes, if not their words, spoke of their disappointment in him – the once handsome, successful, young man, now going nowhere. He had left is job with idealistic dreams of becoming a writer, but now lacked all self-confidence. He told me one day: “The hardest thing has been dealing with my own father, who had always been so proud of me. Now there is disappointment in him every time he looks at me. Recently he told me, ‘You look shabby!’ He didn’t have to add: ‘I’m ashamed of you!’ and I didn’t have to say: ‘I feel shabby!’‘
But right after saying this with real sadness in his voice, his voice suddenly became stronger and he added: “As painful as this, I have one consolation: I’m growing up! I was a spoiled, rich kid, with no tools to handle frustration. This pain is eventually going to turn me into something else. I would have had to fall apart this way sometime anyway to ever grow up; so, better it happen now when I’m still young. I look at my friends who aren’t going through any of this, and I don’t envy them. They will eventually have to go through something like this too!”
I had a sense of what he meant because something very similar happened in my own life, except that I did envy my friends who weren’t as depressed as I was.
During the summer when I was fourteen, my inner world collapsed. It began with the suicide of a neighbor. A young man whose health and body I envied went out one night and hung himself. Then another young man from our small farming community was killed in an industrial accident, and the summer ended with a classmate, a close friend, dying in a horse-back riding accident. I served as an altar-server at each of their funerals. My outside world stayed the same, but inside, not unlike the young man whose story I just shared, things were dark, spinning, scary. I was in a free-fall. The specter of death suddenly colored my whole world and, even though I was only fourteen years old, I was now an old man inside. A certain youthfulness and joie de vivre slipped away from me for good. It truly was a summer of my discontent. I envied everyone who wasn’t as depressed as I was. I felt myself the saddest 14 year-old in the world.
But, as all that pain, disillusionment, and loss of self-confidence was seeping into my life, something else was seeping in too, a deeper faith, a deeper vision of things, an acceptance of my vulnerability and mortality, and a sense of my vocation. I’m a priest today because of that summer. It remains still the most painful, insecure, depressed period of my life. But it remains too the time of deepest growth. Purgatory on earth, I had it when I was fourteen.
Many of us associate Christina Crawford, with the famous biography, Mommy Dearest, a book within which she shares what it was like to be the adopted and emotionally abused daughter of Joan Crawford. It’s a story worth reading and I heartily recommend her follow-up book, a further biographical work entitled, Survivor. In it she chronicles her journey out of Hollywood and into spirituality and religion. And that journey, like the one of the young man whose story I just shared, involved deep pain and soul-shattering disillusionment. Her story tells us what a dark night of the soul can look like. At one point, when things were at their darkest, she states that she was “completely lost”, but adds: “Lost is a place too!”
She’s right! Lost is a place too! And a very important one, humanly and spiritually.
Sometimes when the world is falling apart and we are haunted by the question: What is wrong? The real answer is that there is nothing wrong. The necessary storm has finally arrived and it is a good thing too because our falling apart is the only thing that can break down and transform that spoiled, rich, self-centered kid that is inside us all.