In the seventies, Dustin Hoffman played Jack Crabb in the movie, “Little Big Man,” as a white man raised happily by Native Americans who took him in when a different tribe murdered his parents. As Hoffman’s character said, “I wasn’t just playin’ Injun, I was living Injun.” While there are many ways to view his story, most often I think about it from the perspective of Jack Crabb getting crummy breaks, failing, and stumbling from one lifestyle into another. For some of us regular folks, doesn’t that kind of sum-up life?
I recently went to a memorial service for a popular teacher who was also instrumental in creating a successful drama program. Somewhere in mid-life he got born-again, so the seemingly never-ending memorial production was steeped in evangelical Christian rhetoric. There were three clergymen (men, of course) and it seemed we were never getting out of there. The last “benediction” (which meant more comments from clergy) started after we’d been there three hours.
Before the popular teacher went through his born-again phase (which I’m told lasted a long time but was eventually modified) there was a time in his life when I knew him to be a seeking person. You know, considering all the heavy life questions like the purpose of life, and the usual God questions. This was the brief period of time when I found him the most interesting. He was a seeking, humble, curious, feeling human being.
Ironically, it was at this very time in high school that I deliberately abandoned fundamental Christianity. Before that I used to carry my Bible around school every day – and actually read it. One day, I just stopped. I remember thinking, “This isn’t helping me. I’m tired of being depressed.” I did not permanently dismiss all of Christianity, just the version I was force-fed from birth, but I did leave organized religion alone for many years. As Jack Crabb said, “That was the end of my religious period.”
I sat at this memorial service thinking, “I wish I knew the guy they are all talking about.” The adoration was not less than epic. But I just didn’t see the same person they did. You could assess it as my flaw of being too critical. Maybe. When I think about him, I remember that period of time when he was searching and asking himself difficult questions. I was never among his favored protégés, so my perspective is that of the spectator. From my seat in the auditorium of life, I remember feeling disappointed that he so quickly abandoned seeking for easy answers.
There is something of potential great value in the dark night of the soul and it warrants careful consideration. When we feel lost or isolated, it is uncomfortable and painful. But when we are in that place we can see things, especially about ourselves, that are more difficult to see from the vantage point of lazy contentment. And even worse, when we adopt an ideology, we start reshaping our observations and thoughts to fit those notions, therefore cutting ourselves off from other possible understandings. In that mindset, I have watched people treat long-time friends with callous disregard because they got themselves a shiny new religion and new friends with it.
I understand what it feels like to struggle. Often when we are in that space we spend most of our mental energy trying to squirm free of the discomfort. I am suggesting that as difficult as it is, there is the opportunity to just stay in that uncomfortable space a bit and reflect. Breathe. This could be the angst before the break-through to a better direction, or thought, or understanding. And I will grant you that you don’t want to get stuck in that dark night. That’s called depression.
Respect the dark night of the soul. I think we should not be in such a rush to push out of it. Isn’t that really what Christianity’s lent and Islam’s Ramadan are all about? These two annual religious observances schedule a dark night of the soul in order for the faithful to take some time to reflect and reboot. Discomfort is built-in and used as a deliberate catalyst. What can we do differently? How can we make the future different than the past?
Any trip back to high school is uncomfortable for me, even seeing former classmates. I was recently humbled and saddened to learn I said some typical smart-ass thing once in French class that hurt a classmate. (Though I’m amazed my French was that good.) Now I haven’t been in high school since the seventies, so that’s a long-time for her to carry around the hurt I instigated. I do know that while I enjoy my own commentary on life, I just don’t need to impose it on others, and certainly not recklessly. I am grateful she gave me the opportunity to apologize. I’m not sure I’m any more careful with my comments, but I hope so.
Every life has a theme and a lesson. A lesson for the individual, and a lesson for the rest of us. The memorial service offered story after story. Good stories. Nice themes. The stories that I remember weren’t going to come-up. They are reserved for a few friends, in a small circle of people who know me and still like me. The stories are impacted by where you’re sitting and your view. French class? Memorial service? Lost in high school? It depends if you’re inside looking out or outside looking in. And if the lights dim, or the night seems darker than usual, just take your time. The dark night of the soul is a holy place. -J.B.