in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.

 

Wednesday of the 31st week in ordinary time

The Lord is my light and my help;
  whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life;
  before whom should I shrink?

I am sure I shall see the Lord’s goodness
  in the land of the living.
Hope in him; hold firm and take heart!
  Hope in the Lord!
                                      Ps 27 [26]

*          *         *

What if the darkness, the enemy, is not on the outside? I don’t have enemies. Nobody wants to hurt me; I don’t have anything to fear. Not really.

Probably this is the case for lots of us. I have been reading Henri Nouwen on spiritual formation, and have just finished a section on fear, and the sorts of things we fear. Loneliness, failure, and poverty seem to top the list. Mental illness, though, might figure in somewhere. Depression and dementia threaten us from the inside, as it were, robbing us not of possessions but of our very selves. About dementia, I know little. About depression, I know way more than I want to. I know how depression eats away at hope and cripples love.

Knowing that “I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living” somehow fails to lift the darkness and gloom. As surely as I know it, and as firmly as I believe it, making the step from knowledge to hope is well nigh impossible. It is as though there is a black hole where joy and peace ought to reside, swallowing every tiny ray of light that comes near it. I can stand outside myself and see that the sun is shining, that I have everything I need, that I am loved by God and by my family. All these things ought to lift the darkness. But no: the blackness eats up all the comfort that this knowledge ought to provide.

The darkness comes from the inside and works its way out–in impatience and sullen silence, in not-caring and not-doing. I can see it seeping through the cracks, however much I would prefer to keep it to myself. I ask my soul, “why are you downcast?” and “why so disquieted within me?” I say, “Hope in God, for again I shall praise him!” I know it to be true, however little consolation it brings.

I dwell sometimes in darkness. That is just the way it is. Fortunately I have been up and down enough that at the bottom I can still just remember that it isn’t always like this. For that, and for the psalms, which have been my truest companions since I was a teenager (somehow reminding me that darkness is not my only companion), I am grateful. Because of the psalms, the thought comes unbidden (or is that the Holy Spirit?): “the darkness is as light to thee.”

So I wait, brooding, for the ‘fiat lux’ and for the dawn.

Deo gratias.