I began reading a book this fall titled Healing Through the Dark Emotions, where author Miriam Greenspan offers insights into the healing properties of what many of us deem “negative” emotions. She argues, from a mostly secular and therapeutic viewpoint, that instead of avoiding that which causes us pain, we must accept pain as a teacher. She advocates befriending our dark emotions, allowing them to do their work, forming us into more whole and healthy humans.
As a Christian and someone who has contended with my fair share of dark emotions, her position intrigued me. I stumbled upon this book right before the death of my beloved mother-in-law, when watching her life drip through our family’s fingers like sand was its own master class of keeping dark emotions at bay. I wasted a lot of time wishing them away, casting them away, begging them away—even praying them away without much success. Somewhere along the line, I guess I succumbed to the influence of those who insinuated such a thing could be done.
I have known episodes of deep depression and gripping anxiety, but here, in grief, my sadness shifted and surprised me. Depression was more like a weighted blanket, encouraging immobility, impossible to decipher and make sense of as it lies like an unwelcome visitor on my couch, with an undetermined length of stay. Instead I felt an odd hope, like God was somewhere to be found in this darkness, and inherent in that insight was an invitation to let him do some needed work in me. This grief felt like a shadowed shape, to be sure, but more like a piece of the puzzle instead of the entire landscape. I felt beckoned down the dark path, but also like I had the option to decline. The Spirit nudged me; I hesitated.
This book helped me accept that strange invitation, highlighting ways in which I had previously tried to avoid negative emotions: sadness, depression, anxiety—rightly, because they are unpleasant. But in avoiding them I never made much progress away from them, or as she would say, through them. I expended so much energy keeping darkness at bay, spent so much time and energy trying not to fall into its pit, that the digging in of my heels became its own exhaustion.
This is not my problem singularly. Our predominant cultural narrative is fear of the dark—fear that engineers every type of alarm and motion light and doorbell app to protect us against it. Maybe we are afraid of the loneliness found in the dark, the isolation, the removal of our needed distractions. We sleep with our phones charging by our heads, sucking in their light from the moment we open our eyes, until they drift closed. There is an entire aisle at my local pharmacy dedicated to aiding sleep when the darkness becomes too daunting to face what we find there.
I’ve had Christians, that presumably also fear the dark, question my use of anti-anxiety or anti-depression medication, uneducated in the reality that these pills no more take away the dark than a gym membership makes you fit; both give tools to get the real work done. The medication I’ve taken has helped me to get out from under the blanket to face the dark enough to get a clear view of the enemy I am fighting.
But what if in some ways I’ve been fighting the wrong enemy? What if instead of all the energy I’ve expended trying to eradicate anxiety, grief, depression and sadness, I’m meant to learn from them instead? What if we implemented tools for the dark instead of joining the surrounding culture that focuses on methods to keep us from facing the dark?
Obviously, we seek to avoid that which is evil, not of God, or spiritually oppressive. I daily ask God for help out of whatever pit I find myself in and seek to do the same for others. We do not desire to go into a shadowed valley—but if we must (and we all, at some point, must), we are offered tools. Better yet, we are offered a Companion. And not just a fellow traveler, a Companion with power and authority, whose rod and staff comfort us. The rod of authority wards off predators real and imagined, and reminds us that we serve One who has authority over the darkness. The staff, with its U-shaped crook, pulls us back when we wander like the sheep we are, showing us the importance of staying close to the Shepherd. We are never told how deep the valley will take us or how many turns we will endure. We are told only that the valley is meant to be travelled through, not a final destination.
As unpleasant as the hike may be, Christians hold the assurance that the valley is not our final dwelling place. This is the message Christians have to offer an ever-darkening world. We have a God who became one of us, entering the shadows to dwell among us that we may one day dwell with him forever in the light. This is not the world’s language, this is our language. These are our stories, our songs. We alone testify to a companion King who offers hope, direction, and salvation for this whole dim and disoriented world.
When my mother-in-law died I was devastated, broken-hearted, and I thought, beyond repair. But the Spirit illuminated for me the options I have in suffering:
1) Pretend it didn’t happen and carry on as usual, pushing the bubbling well of pain further and further into myself. This often requires an assortment of numbing strategies to aid with coping: over- or under-eating, over-working, over-spending, over-drinking, over-medicating, and the like.
2) Attempt to speed the healing process. Like an athlete determined to get back onto the field, I can botch the injury further by trying to make a broken part of myself function before its ready. Instead of respecting the limitations of my humanity when God offers me a boundary, I accept it as a challenge to scale the wall. But in doing so I disregard my nature as a created being: fallible, weak—in need of restoration, time, and healing.
3) Let the pain do the work it must. And this is where Christians have a unique opportunity to offer hope and healing. We can wait, not in apathy or depression, but with anticipation and hope. We can “be still” with ourselves and with each other, “knowing that he is God.” We can advertise to a heartbroken world that God is alive and at work and still in the business of bringing beauty from ashes.
We have this confident hope and it anchors our souls, allowing us to engage with the suffering of others even as we engage with our own suffering. May our confidence in our suffering Savior, who modeled this way of life, increase. May his example increase our confidence that if God can use Jesus’ suffering for the salvation of the whole world, he just might be able to do something with ours—if we let him.