What are the differences between people who become bitter and those who grow stronger through difficult or painful experiences? What can each of us learn that will guide us through our own dark nights of the soul to see the dawn with vision cleared?
Most people understand that suffering and sorrow-whether illness, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a job-are inevitable parts of every life. They are universal experiences, not retribution or a symptom of bad luck, but few of us comprehend the ways in which suffering can give rise to growth. In this thoughtful, compassionate book, Kathleen Brehony reveals the transformative power of suffering and shows you how to turn grief into an emotionally and psychologically strengthening experience.
By telling the stories of people who have endured trials and consequently found deeper spiritual and psychological meaning in their lives, After the Darkest Hour illustrates the universality of suffering and its power to connect with others. Drawing on a rich selection of mythologicaland religious stories from many faiths, Brehony provides a historical and cultural context that enriches the meaning of these deeply personal tales and explores the qualities-psychological, behavioral, and spiritual-of those who have turned periods of pain and suffering into opportunities for growth and renewal.
Mastering the art of suffering makes it possible
to find courage, meaning, and a renewed appreciation for the remarkable
mystery of life. Brehony offers practical advice, strategies, and exercises
that will help you approach the difficult situations you face in a more
conscious, enlightened way, as well as specific suggestions for creating
personal healing rituals. After the Darkest
Hour will help you better
understand the intricate relationship between destiny and choice, between
surrender and control. With Kathleen Brehony showing the way, you can find
the blessings and challenges in suffering, and meet even. the darkest moments
of your life with courage and wisdom.
KATHLEEN A. BREHONY, PH.D., is a Jungian-oriented psychotherapist, personal coach, and public speaker who has delivered hundreds of keynote addresses and presided over numerous workshops and training sessions. She is the author of Awakening at Midlife and Ordinary Grace. She divides her time between Virginia and California.
"With the voice of a poet, the perspective of
a wise philosopher, and a heart of deep compassion, Brehony helps us to
see our own sufferings through the lens of the soul, where all events have
meaning and all challenges contain the seeds of growth and new beginnings:'
--Daniel Redwood, author of A Time to Heal
"In her intuitive and insightful reflections, Dr. Brehony teaches us that hard experience is the necessary if painful pathway to a deeper understanding of human life. This is the most useful manual on the redeeming quality of suffering I have ever read:'
--Rabbi Ben Kam in, author of The Path of the Soul: Making Peace with Mortality
"The only thing worse than suffering in silence
is suffering so everybody knows about it. Kathleen Brehony writes about
a third kind, a human dynamic that helps us achieve truth and clarity in
our lives. It's a must read!"
--Robert Urich, actor
"Sure to become a classic treatment of suffering."
The following is an excerpt from the book After the Darkest Hour: How Suffering Begins the Journey to Wisdom
by Kathleen A. Brehony,Ph.D.
Published by Henry Holt; September 2000; $23.00US/$34.50CAN; 0-8050-6435-4;
Copyright © 2000 Kathleen A. Brehoney, Ph.D.
Change: The Natural Order
The early Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." just as the rushing waters of a moving river are in constant flux and change, so are we. This is not a merely figurative notion. Quite literally, all the cells in our bodies will be replaced by new ones in just a few years' time. The leaves fall from trees, the seasons show their faces with cycles of snow and sun, infants grow into little girls into women into old ladies, and death is our inevitable destination. Such is the pervasiveness of change.
The commonly held idea (perhaps, even hope) that life is static, predictable-that we can hang on to our present realities forever-is both illusionary and false. Yet most of us live with, and expect life to conform to, the idea that continuity and permanence are the order of the day. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, most of us see change as an interloper, a radical, often painful, departure from the way "things are supposed to be." Most of us live as if we will never have to let go of anything, and as though we can count on things staying the way they are now. So, when we experience what we consider to be a negative change such as illness, death of a loved one, divorce, or dismissal from a job that sets us back, we can't believe that this is happening to us. Even as you read this (or as I write it!), we may be "making our deals" with the greatest powers: "Well, that's all well and good provided this loss business does not include my beloved . " Whether we fill in the blank with a spouse's name or a pet's, our financial status or professional security, we show our reluctance to accept fully the truth about life and loss. And when we refuse to accept the impermanence of all things, it's no wonder we feel sandbagged when life delivers one of its inevitable blows. It's no wonder that every time it happens we scream, "Why me?"
In spite of the many blessings that open to us by accepting the true nature of reality, many of us desperately want life to remain as we have come to know it: predictable, clear, and secure. Like the stereotyped residents of the fictional 1950s black-and-white TV town of Pleasantville from the film of that same name, we resist what is new, untested, unproved. We don't want anything to change our sense of what our lives are and will be like. Things are better, we surmise, if they are predictable and clearly defined. Desiring to remain safe on familiar terrain, we adhere to patterns, ideas, and ways of being that we adamantly refuse to relinquish in spite of their failure to accommodate the truth about the realities of life. Some of us try to anesthetize our fears with drugs, alcohol, or addictions to work, money, or questionable dogma: anything to insulate us from the truth about what it means to live as a human being. We run from our fear of change on the assumption that it brings loss and loss means suffering. In doing so we can forfeit any real experience of life we have in the short time we are here to live it. The truth is we suffer no matter what. Heraclitus spoke honest words again when he said, "Nothing endures but change." If we learn from our suffering instead of trying to run from it, we can enrich our lives.
Change Means Loss
As you might imagine, people have been struggling with the unpredictability of change in their lives probably since man came into existence. In fact, the idea that life is a constantly changing series ofpersonal experiences, of fortune and misfortune, is found in every culture throughout time. Buddhists refer to samsara as the uncontrolled cycle of birth and death, this illusionary ocean of suffering in which human life takes place. Taoists revere the truth about fluid, flowing spirals of change as the nature of all things and explore the wisdom inherent in understanding this through spiritual teachings such as the Tao te Ching and the I Ching, or "Book of Changes." Native American cosmologies look to the rhythmic changes in nature's seasons as instruction for learning the truth about beginnings and endings and the undulating course that characterizes all existence. Like Buddhist monks in Tibet, the Navajo even create their greatest art in colored paintings made entirely of sand: Images of Father Sky and Changing Woman are painstakingly and lovingly trickled onto the earth, grain by grain, using a medium that is itself impermanent and will be swept away at the end of the day. The medium is their message: Life consists of never-ending cycles of creation and destruction. Images showing change and fate as having a wheel-like, constantly turning shape are widespread and found throughout every culture from mandala figures in the East to the Rota Fortuna at the center of the Tarot's Major Arcana in the Western esoteric tradition.
Have you ever considered, while watching or flicking past the television show Wheel of Fortune, that it is based on esoteric medieval symbolism that addresses one of the fundamentals of human existence? I didn't think so. But, long before popular television game shows of the same name, the "Wheel of Fortune" (sometimes called the "Wheel of Life") was in the hearts and minds of human beings as a convenient method of explaining how life works. Few people could read in the Middle Ages, and until the mid-fifteenth century when Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press there wasn't a whole lot to read anyway. Teaching often took place through pictures and symbols that presented complicated ideas and expressed them in ways that ordinary people could relate to and remember. This circular symbol called the "Wheel of Life" was ubiquitous throughout Europe. A variety of interpretations were delicately drawn in miniature in fine manuscripts, carved in the majestic granite walls of Europe's great medieval cathedrals, and colorfully depicted in stained glass in the rose windows atBasel and Amiens. In every case, this popular image attempts to explain the cycle of change in life and the common psychological reactions to different stages of that cycle.
The late Roman philosopher Boethius, who lived in the early sixth century, strongly influenced people of the Middle Ages about the vicissitudes of life through his writings and offered the most popular interpretation of the "Wheel of Life." He was, and still is, considered to be a very important thinker who shaped a great deal of Western philosophy. But it was his own personal experiences, particularly those contained in his major work, The Consolation of Philosophy, that informed his understanding of how the wheel of life turns for everyone.
Boethius had a fabulous career at the court of Theoderic the Great, king of the Ostrogoths and the ruler of Rome. He was widely renowned as a gifted statesman, scholar, and orator and held an esteemed place in his society. In fact, Boethius was given the kind of attention that we give to present-day celebrities and movie stars. He was kind of the Warren Beatty of the sixth century. He was happily married and had equally brilliant sons, who were made consuls of the court. Like Job, Boethius was leading an absolutely charmed life. He was, that is, until certain advisers of the king began to speak against him and others, suggesting to the aging and somewhat nervous monarch that he had enemies in high places. Boethius, they said, was among them. Without warning Boethius's whole life changed. His brilliant career was finished. He was thrown into prison and charged with treason. And it is here that he raged at the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It is here that he was comforted by the Spirit of Philosophy and enlightened by the idea that life's greatest gifts are not due to Fortune, after all, because she is capricious and erratic in her bestowal of these. Instead, Boethius was reassured that there are other, more powerful forces that offer greater gifts to humankind.
In his dank prison cell, far from the high life he had enjoyed, Boethius came to understand that there are things of more importance in life than one's station, wealth, or position of power. "Honour is not accorded to virtue because of the office held, but to the office because of the virtue of the beholder," be wrote. He pointed out that short of death, the center, the only part of the wheel that does not move or change, is the only place where one can truly be protected from Fortune's fickle touch. This center contains deeper, more axial truths-the laws of God and nature-that remain untouched by Fortune's waxing and waning. These higher truths, to Boethius, revolve around a broad, transcendent perspective that identifies what is truly of value in life. In The Consolation of Philosophy, written as a dialogue between a character named Boethius and the magical Spirit of Philosophy who appears as a beautiful woman, the spirit reminds Boethius that man has a divine destiny and that he suffers not because of his situation ' but only because of his bad attitude and failure to endure his agony with a calm mind. In his wretched pain, he's forgotten who he is and what the divine aim of life is all about. Fortune owes him nothing just because she took back what she had loaned him, the Spirit tells him. Gems, servants, clothes, noble birth, power, money, and status are no good in and of themselves. To pursue them is to seek value in worthless things. Rather the true blessings in life-real goodness and happiness-come from knowing and mastering oneself, realizing our divine nature, and following the force of love. This is the core, the heart of the matter, untouchable by changeable Fortune. Residing in the hub of the wheel moves us away from our own self-absorbed nature and into a centered place in which we can experience the right relationship with something greater than ourselves no matter what happens in our lives.
Boethius's influence on the philosophy of the day was powerful. People in the Middle Ages needed a way of understanding the events of their lives, plagued as they were with war, slavery, and the "Black Death"-all life-threatening, horrific events that were entirely beyond their control. They greeted his interpretation with open arms. The "Wheel of Life" was depicted by artists and writers throughout the Middle Ages. Dante, in particular, offers an excellent description of the way that Fortune influences human lives. His images extend from earlier portrayals of Fortune as a woman standing on a globe and turning it with her feet. In the Inferno, he wrote:
The symbol of Fortune as a woman turning a globe with her feet gave way to a more modern one around the twelfth century. In this image (shown in Figure 2-1), the wheel is turned in a clockwise direction by the spirit of Fortune, still always portrayed as a woman, who stands beside a mechanical wheel, which she controls with a lever. Once again, the truths illustrated are simple: change is the naturalorder of the universe, and change always incorporates loss. But this image also conveys much about the process of how change affects our lives.No mortal power may stay her spinning wheel.
The nations rise and fall by her decree.
None may foresee where she will set her heel:
She passes, and things pass. Man's mortal reason
cannot encompass her She rules her sphere
as the other gods rule theirs.
Season by season her changes change her changes endlessly,
and those whose turn has come press on her so, she must be swift by hard necessity.
At the top of the wheel stands a beautiful, smiling person usually seen as a king or queen, suggesting that no one, regardless of his or her position in life, is exempt from the turning wheel of life. This top position is labeled Happiness, though in some versions it's called regno-"I reign." This, I think, is the Latin equivalent of our modern expression "I rule! " In this state, the image shows what life is like when things are "normal": everything is going great. job's children are alive and well, his animals healthy, and his land fertile. Boethius hasn't been downsized and is in line for a big raise. Mark O'Brien is a healthy six-year-old. And my father and Deanne have arrived safely home from their West Virginia trip. Naturally, this is where we would like to stay. But that's impossible because the wheel always turns, just as life always turns, and is constantly in motion. Happiness never lasts.
As the wheel turns, the character at the top moves to the three o'clock position on the wheel. What we see here is the same character falling through space. His smile is gone, replaced by a look of worry and fear. Fortune has moved the wheel, created change, and the character is challenged to relinquish his previous position. Pure terror is probably a better description of this guy's expression. We can imagine that the character, like the rest of us, would like nothing more than to return to the status quo, to stay in Pleasantville by shoving the wheel counterclockwise and once again know the happiness and safety of a familiar position. But that's not possible. The character here is plunging downward into a "dark night of the soul." It is here that we are stripped bare of our previously held illusions and our insistence on seeing life as we would like it to be rather than as it is. This image of a descent and passage over a dark, frightening threshold where one is snatched from a secure and happy position and tossed into the abyss abounds in mythological literature from all human cultures. To name just a few, there are Dante's visitations through the cycles of hell, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Kore-Persephone's visit with Hades, Sumerian Inanna's descent to the underworld, Celtic hero Finn MacCool's being swallowed by a monster, the Inuit story of Raven darting into the gullet of a whale-cow, and medieval knights of Western Europe in shining armor entering the lairs of dragons. This universally recognized plunge into the unknown can be horrifying. We often feel deserted by God and the comforts of the familiar. We may feel frighteningly alone in spite of the fact that every human being in the world has had similar experiences. This position on the wheel is simply called Loss, or sometimes regnavi, meaning "I have reigned."
The next position at the bottom of the wheel is named Suffering-sum sine regno, or "I have no kingdom." Here the character is naked and being dragged through hell. Look at him. He's hanging upside down and his expression is one of pure despair. This symbolizes raw vulnerability in the face of the ravages of unplanned sorrows, loss of normality, and the natural emotional consequences unleashed by the destruction of life as we knew it. At this point on the wheel, the character feels anxiety, sadness, grief, tension, anger, and conflict.
When we are immersed in periods of suffering, most of us feel it will never end. At those times, it helps to remember that the Latin root of the word suffering itself means "to allow" or "to experience." In the midst of turmoil brought about by an unexpected loss or change, very often we have no answers that ease our anguish; we simply must "be" and experience the full pain of our loss. This is a particularly difficult notion in our culture, where we have learned to look for simple solutions, magic pills, or quick fixes to short-circuit the pain of suffering. It can be helpful to remember that even in the midst of our anguish, the wheel continues to turn. We can be certain that even in the blackest night our situation will change again.
Emerging out of suffering, the character on the "Wheel of Life" moves to the fourth placement on the wheel. This nine-o'clock position is simply called Hope-regnabo, "I shall reign"-and here we begin to see that there is a vision of a return to "normality." Once again, there is a thought, however fleeting, that we might once again be happy. The notion that our suffering might end comes into view. For some who suffer, hope never seems to appear on the horizon. They may remain stuck in their suffering, grieving until they die. This is the worst of all possible fates.
If we are wise and strong and willing to entertain the notion of hope, we can emerge psychologically and spiritually transformed by our experiences on the wheel of change we all ride. Change and loss-and how we respond to them-can be doors to higher levels of consciousness. You'll remember that it is said that the gods have ordained a solemn vow, and that it is through suffering that we achieve wisdom.
As the wheel turns, we once again return to the position of "Happiness" at the top of the wheel. But it is a mistake to think that this is the same position from whence we started. This will not be the "old" normal. This will be a new state of equilibrium. We might like to think "I rule!" but the cycle inevitably begins again.
About six months after my mother died in 1992, my father came to visit and, as was his custom, invited several of my close friends and Nancy and me to go out to dinner. Both my parents always enjoyed meeting and getting to know my friends and looked forward to visiting with them when they would stay with us. Going out to dinner together was something we did regularly. My parents had been married for forty-seven years, and then my father had nursed my mom through two brutal years of leukemia before she died. But because my parents had been so close and did almost everything together, every activity for my dad was filled with memories of days gone by. Even this dinner with friends harked back to the many times my parents would visit and my friends would gather with them for cookouts or dinners at O'Sullivans-a local seafood restaurant and our favorite hangout. I could see that Dad was making progress in his grief, but I knew, as did he, that his healing would take a long time. Even this dinner would present its sad moments-memories called up by simple things like familiar faces, laughter, and music, even by the mouthwatering aroma of the steamed shrimp and hush puppies we always ordered. During dinner, my good friend Kathryn, who has known my father for twenty years, leaned over and gently asked how he was doing. "Are you getting back to normal yet, Jim?" she said. My dad paused for a long time as he considered the question. Finally he said, "I'm doing better, Kathryn. But I don't think I know yet what normal is going to be."
My father intuitively understood what the Wheel of Life was designed to teach and take us to new places. We can never go back to the "old normal." Once having seen, we can't unsee. Once having known, we can't unknow. And no matter how deep our suffering, the wheel will turn. Hope will appear on a distant horizon, and we will find a new equilibrium: A new normal. And we'll rejoice in this moment until the wheel once again begins its inescapable turn.
After dinner with my dad and friends I thought about the "Wheel of Fortune" and where he was on it. I realized that this medieval metaphor held many important insights into change in my life and in those of the people I knew and worked with as a therapist. It was very clear to me that this was not just an image for folks in the Middle Ages. It had real power to explain the psychological reactions to change in our modern-day lives.
(Endnotes were included)
Copyright © 2000 Kathleen A. Brehony, Ph.D.