Sunday, 5 May 2019
All I know is the dark
“…all that I know is the dark.”
This psalm haunts me with its hopelessness. The psalmist feels utterly rejected, decrying that God has “deprived me of my friends…” (8), “plunged me to the bottom of the grave…” (6); filled with misery and cut off from hope, he feels “like the slaughtered lying in the grave,” (5) forgotten even by God. But unlike so many psalms of sorrow and suffering, this ends not with an affirmation of trust or hope (a verse about God’s faithfulness, His saving mercy or love), but instead with a final inescapable resignation, “all I know is the dark.”
It is a supremely powerful expression of our utter helplessness and isolation. One senses no hope in this prayer, not even a plea for hope. It is simply a statement of God’s unconcern, God’s hard justice, God’s pitiless wrath.
“I am finished! / Your anger
has overwhelmed me…” (15b-16)
has overwhelmed me…” (15b-16)
What are we to do with such feelings of hopelessness? The psalmist offers no comfort, only complaint, only witness to the truth of it. One wonders that such words, such a prayer, would have ended up in the canon of scripture. What were the rabbis and scribes thinking? What made them feel this was appropriate as part of God’s Holy Word?
And yet I can attest to the truth of it. In a house riddled with depression and feelings of isolation and loneliness, my prayer too often echoes it. I am overwhelmed by the needs of others, unable to find comfort in prayer, or rest, or even a bowl of onion dip, I feel “finished.” Opening my Bible, in search of solace or inspiration, I feel lost; sometimes I’m so exhausted I find it hard even to just focus on the words on the page. My vision blurs, my head throbs. I close the Book or close my eyes and all I know is darkness.
I sit down to write, and nothing comes. Even these reflections; nothing. My efforts to read at least a chapter of the Bible a day and write something (in my journal) about it every day has fallen by the wayside. Initially I was set to blame the Psalms themselves. I tell myself they are less interesting to reflect on because they already are themselves a reflection (of a kind) and so when I sit to write (to reflect on them) my words feel like little more than a pathetic restatement of their own themes.
Yet, with the year we have had thus far, I would think spending more time in prayer and reflection would be my only hope. There has been anxiety about work, one daughter in the hospital, one daughter moving to Minnesota, a leaking roof, cracks in the shower tiles, broken dishwasher, broken dryer, repairman visits, car troubles, struggles just to get to mass (let alone on time and with a smile), all while worrying about one daughter aging off our insurance, worrying about hospital bills for another, and occasionally trying to figure out how to make time for a date night with my wife. Not to mention wondering if we will ever be able to afford to retire (and if so how big of a cardboard box we will need to comfortably live in under the freeway overpass). This is clearly a time for prayer! But, during this strange season of anxiety and over eating, this time of near constant therapy visits, when I should be turning to God for comfort, instead I turn to a carton of onion dip and a bag of chips. Of course, this isn’t healthy and can lead to trouble even with my closet full of “comfort waist” khakis. Between September and January, I put on close to 15 pounds; one of my daughters sweetly referred to my little “Santa Claus belly.”
Aargh! I truly felt “finished!” Not only was I having trouble praying, but suddenly I needed to exercise and avoid the chip aisle at HEB as well. I needed to stop eating so much, needed to exercise and needed to find comfort in something other than chips, dip and Shiner Bock. But how?
As a writer, I was feeling lost. I was constantly trying to make time for writing, but each time I did –I felt dread and anxiety welling up within me. Felt overwhelmed by the very thought of putting a word on the page; almost disgusted by the very idea of it. Though I would write something each time (even if it was only a few words or a few sentences) I always felt sour when I was done. There was no comfort in the act of writing. And though I’d recently sold 2 poems and had another published in an anthology, instead of feeling affirmed in my creative efforts, I felt even more worthless; my achievements belittled by the critical voices in my head. Nothing I did was good enough; my efforts felt pathetic; worthless; instead of pride at being published, I felt shame and regret. I not only wanted to hide my achievements, but I wanted to hide from them. I began to isolate myself, to hide not only from my family, and friends, but from myself (and in the end from God). Like the psalmist, I knew only the dark, and in a sense, began to find my only comfort there.
Yet, in the middle of all this I was invited to read a poem and say a few words about poetry to a group of middle schoolers at a Diocesan Poetry Festival (over at St. Francis de Salles). Feeling so overwhelmed by life, the last thing I wanted to do was face a bunch of pre-teeners and 13 year olds and see my own true worth reflected (and confirmed) in their bored eyes. The invitation actually filled me with panic! But the event was being organized by a friend of mine (Maria) and I had bowed out last year (and the year before that) and the fact that she still asked me again made me feel guilty about saying no, again! I could feel the rising of one more failure looming before me –a failure that seemed somehow worse than boring a group of middle-school poets and their parents—it was the failure to say yes to a friend when she asked for help. So, instead of making an excuse or finding a way to bow out, I said, yes. Though I secretly hoped something would come up at school to keep me from being able to go. Though I said yes, I guess I was still secretly hoping for “no.”
But in the end, I went. I got lost on the way. Parked near the church instead of the school, then headed in the wrong direction when I tried to walk to the school (mistaking the nearby public school’s playground for that of the church school), but in the end I found my way to the festivities and when I arrived I was greeted with great joy and given a seat of honor (near the winning poets). And when it was time I was introduced and got up and spoke (for 3-4 minutes) and read my poem and as I finished I could feel the weight of the silence –palpable-- and the gaze of those young and old eyes so intense; they weren’t bored. They had listened. They had cared. They had needed to hear a message about the importance of what they (or their child) was doing –the making of poems—and they had needed to hear the poem I had given them, had needed the comfort of those words. What had happened in that auditorium qua cafeteria had not been about me (or for me)—it was for them! And by saying yes to Maria’s request I had (for a moment) stopped thinking about myself and my weight and my failures and my ego and my loneliness, and I had thought about Maria and her efforts to create a Poetry Fest for these young writers. A chance for them to shine, to realize the importance of words, of art, of poetry. Of truth. The importance of standing as a witness to the truth. To stand up and say: This is true. This is what it feels like to be 13 and in love for the first time. This is what it feels like to discover life, the world, a buttercup (or a butterfly) for the first time; this is the truth of being 13 or 12 or 11 and feeling amazed by the stars or the clouds or the birds in flight! And this is how it feels to be 13 or 12 or 11 and alone and unloved. This is how it feels when all you know is the dark.
To be a witness, to be a presence, to be a voice in God’s great song, we don’t have to be amazing, we don’t even have to be good, or joyful even, and (as Mother Teresa said) we don’t even have to be successful. But we do have to show up. We have to be willing to say yes, even when the whole world is busy saying no.
That was the lesson I learned that day. And even though walking back to my car I got lost again and wandered half way round the church before finding it, I felt a whole lot better. In fact, I even felt a little lighter. Quite possibly even a little radiant. Of course, my life is still full of stress, and my house still needs repairs, and there are still bills to pay and my pants are still a little tight, but I said yes to a friend in need and none of that other stuff matters quite as much now… In fact even the burdens feel a little lighter now.
Anyway, part of what I want to say is this: When all you know is the dark, don’t be afraid to say it. Someone might need to hear your words to let them know they aren’t alone. But also this, always remember that even when you are in the dark, if someone reaches out to you and asks for help, don’t be afraid to say yes. It is quite possible God put you there for a reason. And (oddly enough) that reason may have nothing to do with you.