I fell out of bed, hurting my head from things that I’ve said.”
—The Bee Gees
In the book Humanism as the Next Step by Lloyd and Mary Morain, the use of the term “soul” in a humanist sense is described as a poetic metaphor. “Deep and important life-giving feelings are often spoken of as spiritual.” I like this view of the soul as a metaphor—not a separate, immortal essence but the collective consciousness of nature and nurture, genetics and epigenetics, zeitgeist and environment.
Whether you think of the soul in the traditional religious sense of one’s immortal spirit or in a humanist context, a dark night of the soul is a time of trauma when sleep is interrupted by nightmares and sobbing, and the waking will trembles while the body stiffens and cracks. It is a natural disaster of the spirit—a tsunami of sorrow, terror, anger, hopelessness. It is the Bee Gees song of powerlessness and alienation:
I started a joke; it started the whole world crying
oh if I’d only seen, that the joke was on me.
I’ve had the book Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore on my bookshelf for years and finally cracked it open a few days ago. It was alive!
Moore speaks about a dark night being symbolized by the ocean and the biblical story of Jonah’s journey inside the whale. He says an artist attempting to work through a dark night is drawn to recreate the treacherous night sea journey. I have found this to be true. I am a child of two oceans, the Atlantic and Indian, and I have found them featuring in every aspect of my pathetic attempts to create over the past year as I’ve struggled with my own dark night of the soul.
Last year in Cape Town, a woman challenged me: How will you help sixteen children from the squatter camp Masiphumelele in Kommetjie? Like Jonah, I was afraid of the call to duty. Instead of jumping to action, I spent the rest of the day searching for sea glass on the beach. Instead of finding polished gems, I left the beach with crappy pieces of broken glass bottles in hand. On my way to the car, another woman asked me if I’d seen the whale that had been swimming in the bay. No, actually I hadn’t. Now I realize the symbolism and the message in the glass bottles: Of course I couldn’t see the whale, I was already hiding inside the belly of the beast.
The poet Doug D’Elia wrote a poem about sea glass which ends:
while we ask, what took you so long?
Our trailing footprints washed
quickly out to sea
This poem reminds me to hurry—my footprints are about to be erased; Moore says wait:
“if your dark night is one of pregnancy and oceanic return, you could react accordingly and be still. Watch and wonder. Take the human embryo as your model. Assume the fetal position, emotionally and intellectually. Be silent. Float in your darkness as if it were the waters of the womb, and give up trying to fight your way out or make sense of it.”
How can I help sixteen children of Masiphumelele? I don’t know.