Tag Archives: soul

In the Still of the Night

We are all alone at night. Even if there is someone close, as we drift off to our subconscious, we are alone. In the moments in time before you are asleep, what are those last thoughts before you drift off? Right now, I’m staring at the ocean. I’m thinking about the first bloody Europeans who saw this tropical paradise, before they set about claiming, colonizing, and ruining. It was a larger world back then and after months of nothing but water, it must have been glorious.

As I experience St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), I see poverty and luxury. There is little in between. I see no natural enterprises that are not related to the service of tourism. And I feel a subtle resentment just below the surface from the natives. I don’t blame them. Though I believe I live modestly, the contrast between their lives and mine is embarrassing. This foreshadows the mainland US where I think the oligarchy intend a permanent underclass to clean their pools, mow their yards, and work in their restaurants. It is one reason why health care and education are only for the rich. Keep us scraping to survive so we don’t have the energy or courage to object. I guess they have forgotten the French Revolution. Ask Marie Antoinette how that attitude worked out.

I admit I am not a relaxed or enthusiastic traveler. I can’t wait to return home and see my dog. I’m the person who goes to a tropical paradise like St. Thomas and thinks about taxation without representation as a euphemism for colonization – which I consider a heinous sin. I feed the feral cats by the house and I would take them home if I could. But I also look at the vast water views and count myself fortunate to get re-centered. This beats the hell out of the smells that attack me when I head underground for commuter rail from center city to the suburbs.

And then, because I like thinking about religion, I think about God. When I think about the god that was force-fed on indigenous peoples along with brutal imperialism, I am sick and ashamed. This is one of many reasons I have resolutely denied a personal god for so long. But then it comes to the still of the night. The birds are quiet, the music in the house has been silenced, the ocean on the rocks is consistent and quiet from where I sit. It’s full dark with only moonlight. Not even tiny lights on the uninhabited islands dotting the horizon. The closest one is for sale for $30 million. Who owns an island? It seems sacrilegious.

Bill Maher is my favorite atheist. I imagine having robust discussions with him, though I know he just dismisses religion as silly and doesn’t really like these conversations. But he keeps me honest. How would I describe a good religion? You know, one that doesn’t hurt others but still enriches one’s own life?

Usually religion is about dogma and theology. These might be metaphysical and complex, but I think of little comfort in the still of the night when spirituality matters more. I would say in the still of the night I imagine a life force outside of myself. I must assign it female energy, or I’m just walking away. Then I imagine a great kindness. A kindness that surrounds me and comforts me in the very same way I work to comfort and protect my little dog. I would not mind having this for myself. So, if you’re out there, Mother God, surround me with kindness. Please give me a feeling that I matter. That is enough. Because the looking out for myself, helping others, sorting out right from wrong, well, I think that’s my job. So, if you could spare some kindness, I will be grateful. -J.B.

The Dark Night of the Soul

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 asteeple5_edited-2 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.