Monday, March 9, 2009

Traveling Through the Darkness

Yesterday morning, I was listening to the local classical music station on the way to church. On Sunday mornings, the station broadcasts programs from various faiths. I happened to tune in at the beginning of a broadcast about depression. In only a few minutes of listening, I'm not sure I got all the subtleties of the discussion, but it seemed to me that this faith tradition was saying that depression is a kind of darkness. Since God is light, and we are like God, we should not accept darkness in our lives. Their advice for getting out of the darkness was to claim the light was real, and the darkness was not. I've read or heard other religious doctrines that have said that we are to claim the good things in life as gifts of God, and not accept the difficult things. By doing so, all the hard things will be overcome. I disagree.

I have lived through some difficult times, and have experienced times of darkness. Many others who have lost loved ones have traveled through the darkness. This is a reality we deal with.

Some years ago, Psalm 23:4 took on new meaning to me. Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. I'd always assumed that verse was primarily talking about the time when death approaches. This verse is a great comfort to dying people, and I agree with the validity of that interpretation. As time goes on, though, I have come to understand that the valley of the shadow of death is also the place where people who are mourning have to travel. Losing someone we love can cast us into a time of darkness. We don't stand still in the valley, we walk through it. The valley may be difficult and dark, but we are not alone. And each loss brings a valley of a different shape and size.

I've been reading two books in the last few weeks, both of which talk about grief. One is a book of fiction, called The Shack, by William Paul Young. In it, the main character enters into a time he calls The Great Sadness. He has gone through a terrible loss that was a result of another person's evil choice, and it has shaken him to the core. Along the way to the beginning of healing, he builds a new relationship with God, while having some unique conversations about many aspects of life, including evil, suffering, and forgiveness.

The other book I've been reading is A Grace Disguised, How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Jerry Sittser. He tells of the struggles he experienced after a drunken driver hit the minivan he was driving, killing his wife, his daughter, and his mother. He was left alone to raise his three surviving children. One of the images he used was so powerful, I'm going to quote it here. It's on page 33 of the book:

I had a kind of waking dream shortly after that, caused, I am sure, by that initial experience of darkness. I dreamed of a setting sun. I was frantically running west, trying desperately to catch it and remain in its fiery warmth and light. But I was losing the race. The sun was beating me to the horizon and was soon gone. I suddenly found myself in the twilight. Exhausted, I stopped running and glanced with foreboding over my shoulder to the east. I saw a vast darkness closing in on me. I was terrified by that darkness. I wanted to keep running after the sun, though I knew that it was futile, for it had already proven itself faster than I was. So I lost all hope, collapsed to the ground, and fell into despair. I thought at that moment that I would live in darkness forever....

Later, my sister, Diane, told me that the quickest way for anyone to reach the sun and the light of day is not to run west, chasing after the setting sun, but to head east, plunging into the darkness until one comes to the sunrise.

I discovered in that moment that I had the power to choose the direction my life would head, even if the only choice open to me, at least initially, was either to run from the loss or to face it as best I could. Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey, wherever it would lead, and to be transformed by my suffering rather than to think I could somehow avoid it.

The writer went on to talk about how allowed himself a time of solitude every day to deal with the darkness and give himself to grief. In these times, he both suffered and grew deeper. When he wrote the book, three years after the accident, he still was experiencing times of darkness. On page 36 the author wrote:

The decision to face the darkness, even if it led to overwhelming pain, showed me that the experience of loss itself does not have to be the defining moment of our lives. Instead, the defining moment can be our response to the loss. It's not what happens to us that matters as much as what happens in us. Darkness, it is true, had invaded my soul. But then again, so did light. Both contributed to my personal transformation...

In other words, though I experienced death, I also experienced life in ways I never thought possible before, not after the darkness, as we might suppose, but in the darkness. I did not go through pain and come out the other side; instead, I lived in it and found within the pain the grace to survive and eventually grow.

The author of the book is very candid about his struggles, with faith, with fear, and with the meaning of forgiveness. He managed to write a deep, uplifting book after a terrible loss. The focus was more on the struggles we all experience in the hard places, not just on his own journey. I recommend it.

It's often said there is no way out of grief but through. Allowing ourselves to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, trusting that we are not alone in the darkness, will help us reach the other side.

These pictures were taken at Northwest Park in Irving.

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