In the middle of our life journey I found myself in a dark wood … I can’t offer any good explanation for how I entered it. I was so sleepy at that point that I strayed from the right path.DANTE, Inferno, Canto I
This opening quote from Thomas Moore’s “Dark Nights of the Soul,” his pilgrimage into the “deepest, darkest experiences in life,” beautifully captures the essence of a dark night.
Moore’s book is an interpretation of 16th-century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross‘s journey to divine union, the dark night that precedes all attempts to fulfill our purpose.
Modern-day psychology lumps dark nights into the category of depression, and while depression might be a dark night, a dark night isn’t the same as depression.
Moore makes this distinction.
“Depression is a psychological sickness; a dark night is a spiritual trial,” he writes.
We can’t medicate away a spiritual trial. Attempting to do so to lessen the effects of this painful period can make it worse.
A dark night is a place we wander into while tending to the everyday distractions that sidetrack us from the soul work we’re called upon to do.
“I’ll get to this meaning of life, soul work thing in a minute. First, I’ll do a load of laundry. By then it will be lunchtime, so I’ll eat a snack and take a nap.”
But soul work can only be postponed for so long. Procrastinate long enough, and the dark night gets even darker.
When the Dark Night Belongs to Someone Else
While personally experiencing a dark night of the soul is excruciating, nothing is more humbling, more painful, or more frustrating than watching someone you love descend into one. *
These are the darkest nights of all.
You long for a tiny opening— a ray of light in your loved one’s eyes — that gives you the key to enter their heart and offer the words of comfort you think they should hear.
But after realizing the futility of your attempts to ease a soul-based crisis with human-inspired words, you retreat to a place in which you’re not entirely satisfied with your decision, but you accept there’s nothing else you can do.
So you do nothing.
The Blame Game
At this juncture, your loved one may point a finger at you as the source of their “unhappiness.” Your silence is interpreted as apathy, and your distance as proof that you’re to blame.
“You used to be different” is a recurring theme. “You used to be supportive. You used to know what to say to make me feel better. You used to love me. You used to …”
Using you as a scapegoat is meant to get your attention and draw you closer. Instead, it pulls you away.
Or it does something worse.
It triggers you to defend yourself against a crime you didn’t commit.
Let’s Begin With the Don’ts
When helping someone navigate their way out of a dark night, don’t engage in their drama. The toxic tendrils of their despair will drag you down into a rabbit hole deeper than the deepest depths of hell.
Don’t play armchair analyst or tell them to get over it.
Don’t bring your dark night into the mix.
“When I was feeling as shitty as you are feeling right now, I read all sorts of inspirational books. I meditated. I ate more protein. I worked out more. I blah blah, blah …”
Don’t be that person. This dark night is about your loved one, not you.
Don’t offer shortcuts to help them Google map their way out of the dark night.
“Here, have a glass of wine.” “Let’s go have dinner so you can get over this funk you’re in.” “Let’s plan a getaway and do fun stuff instead of wallowing in a pity party.”
These solutions only postpone the inevitable. A dark night must be experienced. It is not something to get over.
It is a priceless gift. And until it has been carefully and patiently unwrapped and appreciated, it won’t go away.
Caution: Unless you want to know what it’s like to be shot through the heart with dead dagger eyes, you might want to keep that revelation to yourself until your loved one is ready to hear it. Better yet, let them come to you with this insight once their dark night has passed.
STFU and Listen
So, what can you can do to help someone who is struggling during a dark night of the soul?
It’s easy, and it’s not.
Put your mind away, and listen with your heart.
Translation: shut the fuck up, and hear what’s not being said.
Your loved one doesn’t want your advice. They want you to listen.
Teach by example. Shine your light on their darkness.
Be positive but not annoying. You’ll know the difference by the look in your loved one’s eyes or the tone of their voice whenever they’re around you.
Most important of all — the epitome of easier said than done …
Reject their invitation to jump into their dark night with them.
Because when they emerge from the darkness at dawn, they’re going to need you to be there waiting for them.
* When Your Help Isn’t Helping
My thoughts on this are meant only for temporary dark nights of the soul, those we all go through to grow and fulfill our purpose in life.
If someone you love is suffering from a dark night that threatens their health or their life, please encourage them to seek professional help immediately. We lose too many people to mental and spiritual anguish to pretend it will go away on its own.