Through the dark and into the light

“In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.” Albert Camus

Since I began my blog, friends and colleagues have expressed their concern about what they perceive to be a depressive strain in my writing.  I have mixed feelings about my dark side.  It can be painful but it has lent depth and insight to my life.  So I wrote an essay about the Blues, trying to explain how the very act of acknowledging and not avoiding dark feelings helped people move through them.  The essay proved interesting but not persuasive to my friends, which leads me to a different tack—putting what Winston Churchill called his “dark dog” into a cultural context.

In America, we are encouraged to be happy and urged to avoid or hide unhappiness.  There is a stigma attached to depression, a largely unstated belief that vulnerability is weak and unacceptable, particularly for men, who are taught from early childhood to mask their fears and anxieties.  More than one survey has determined that Americans believe depression is the result of a weak will or a character deficit.

Sometimes when people “worry” about me it sounds like they are also scolding.  Their concern sounds a little bit like an accusation.

When people point to my sadness, melancholy, or depression, my first feeling is shame.  My second feeling is denial.  Not me.  Then I want to distance myself from these prying eyes. This is what men do.

We’re not alone.  In many other cultures—Japan, for example—vulnerability must be avoided, and shows up regularly in stomach and digestive problems, which are acceptable.  The more martial and macho a culture, the more men transform vulnerability in to physical symptoms.  In American culture, women are said to “act in,” while men “act out,” often to the detriment of marital relationships and to a society that badly needs to look inward before leaping to military actions and diplomatic bullying.

I belong to another strain of manhood.  I was always plagued and blessed with a desire to understand myself as deeply as possible. I want to be happy but not at the cost of  the depth and wisdom I find in introspection.  I need to go below the surface to discover what moves me, what upsets me, what brings joy and relaxation, what made me effective.  These introspective journeys have been as natural to me as the running and jumping, the basketball, tennis, hiking—and the exuberant pursuit of ideas—that have also filled my life. They formed the foundation of my life as a psychotherapist and coach.

But let’s return to what I take to be my strain of manhood.  Many of the people we admire most have been subject to dark moods.  Here are just a few:  Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, Edward Degas, Leonard Cohen, William Faulkner, Michelangelo, John Steward Mill, Sir Isaac Newton, John Keats, Kurt Vonnegut, and, of course, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.  I feel tremendously enhanced by the company of these great depressives, whose capacity to brave the darkness, then combine it with the light to form complex and beautiful thoughts, I so admire.

I believe that it is impossible to reach towards insight and creativity without fully acknowledging fear, anxiety, and confusion.  According to the neuroscientist, Nancy C. Andreasen, our openness to new experiences, tolerance for ambiguity, and the way we approach life enables us to perceive things in a fresh and novel way. Less creative types “quickly respond to situations based on what they have been told by people in authority”, while “creatives live in a more fluid and nebulous (read: incredibly stressful) world.”

Writing for Scientific American, the psychologist, Scott Barry Kaufman, summed up his research this way:  “It seems that the key to creative cognition is opening up the flood gates and letting in as much information as possible,” he writes. “Because you never know: sometimes the most bizarre associations can turn into the most productively creative ideas.”

The need to tolerate the dark is embedded in all of our religious traditions.  Buddha tells us that first reality of life is suffering.  All our efforts to avoid or deny this reality make us more superficial and rigid, unable to face and adapt to life’s great challenges.  Moses asks us to face—not accept—our enslavement to other people and their way of thinking.  With that insight, he begins to lead us towards freedom.  Jesus sees our suffering and takes it onto himself.  He doesn’t ignore it.

My first intentional effort to move through the darkness and into the light was as a young man.  I wanted to triumph over my fears, which meant I needed to see them clearly, understand them, know that I would survive the encounter with myself.  For me, this meant mustering all my courage because I was afraid of what I might find—my weaknesses, my limitations, my uncertainty, the many demons for which I did not yet have a name.  I did survive and feel very much richer for the effort: more comfortable with myself; and much more able to summon my courage when needed.

As I age, as the realization that the years ahead are not infinite, the search for wisdom has grown more urgent.  By that I mean the search for perspective, calm, joy, and freedom from fear become ever more alluring, ever more intense.  Each search begins with a feeling or thought that I need to come to terms with—as we all do—and attempts to move through the darkness and into the light.  That’s the road I’ve chosen.

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8 thoughts on “Through the dark and into the light”

  1. “For the soul, depression is an initiation, a rite of passage. If we think that depression, so empty and dull, is void of imagination, we may overlook its initiatory aspects. We may be imagining imagination itself from a point of view foreign to Saturn; emptiness can be rife with feeling-tone, images of catharsis, and emotions of regret and loss. As a shade of mood, gray can be as interesting and as variegated as it is in black-and-white photography. If”
    ― Thomas Moore, Care of the Soul Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition: Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life

    Your blog entry resonated with me, Barry — thank you. After reading Care of the Soul 25 years ago, I began giving myself permission to dwell in my dark moments instead of trying to banish them. Now, rather than feeling guilty or ashamed when these visit me, I feel a great sense of curiosity.

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    1. I love the Thomas Moore reference, Marlene. I also remember reading Care of the Soul with a great sense of recognition and appreciation.

      Curiosity is just the word to express that feeling I have during my explorations.

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  2. Thanks Barry! The dark places have a “do not enter” sign nailed to the entrance; don’t they? Going forth into the dark requires courage, as well as curiosity. We want to know and understand ourselves, but the dark place can bring pain, guilt, uncertainty as well as revelation. Even wisdom may come from the journey. I would like a nice explanation of what is wisdom.

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    1. Hi David,

      I’ve been putting together a book proposal about the subject. It’s tentatively called Journey to the Shores of Wisdom. I don’t claim to be there but, instead feel close enough to see what the terrain is like. If I find the courage, I’ll post my description.

      Barry

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  3. I must say when I saw the quote from Camus, my curiosity was immediately peaked. Camus is my favorite author, my favorite book is “The Fall”, not “The Stranger” as for most people of they are familiar with Camus at all. I will say, or as you say Buddha tells us the first reality of life is suffering. I will say I have learned to acknowledge suffering, avoiding it less, albeit begrudgingly. I have experienced the overwhelming need by others for me to be “ok”, as if somehow my introspection of living in the moment threatens their well-being. It is interesting how uncomfortable people can be with the honest depiction of our true selves, but be comfortable when we present the fiction of who we are.

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    1. A very wise comment, Curtis. It’s the rare person who wants to spend time in the dark or to even dwell in the company of those who have. Virtually every novel and detective story, though, moves through those dark places, and people read them avidly.

      As to Camus: it’s great to welcome a fellow Camus fan. He’s long been my favorite philosophical “character.” In other words, I love his philosophy but loved even more his efforts to live it.

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