I read this last night in a brilliant collection of essays by Parker J Palmer. ‘Many young people today journey in the dark, as the young always have, and we elders do them a disservice when we withhold the shadowy parts of our lives.’ He goes on to say that when he got depressed in his early 20s, he thought he had developed a ‘unique and terminal case of failure.’ It wasn’t until many years later he understood that what had really happened was that he had ‘merely embarked on a journey toward joining the human race.’
Sorry for quoting the shit out of Parker J Palmer, but there is something incredibly powerful in what the author is saying here. Absolutely, when I was younger, I thought I had developed such a singular sense of failure. It certainly didn’t occur to me that all the older, wiser people I came across might have had horrific struggles with bleakness, darkness, depression, crappy things happening to them too, any of it, all of it. In fact, when I think back to the kind of stories I heard about depressed people – well, Sylvia Plath springs to mind and she stuck her head in the oven. What I’m saying is that the tales of depression I heard about always seemed to end pretty badly. As a teenager and young adult, I did not know that most people had been through their version of Palmer’s ‘journey of darkness’, most had troubles, they all grew from them. Grew up, out in every direction, exponentially. I don’t know why I thought most people had escaped it – that arrogance of youth, as Robyn Davidson called it, perhaps. We are all human, we have troubles and sorrow, we all do. We become fully signed up members of the human race when we peak over to the dark side, when we jump in it, or worse, when we get stuck in it.
Parker is talking about us being role models for younger people. And not the kind of role model that is defined by achievement after achievement and acquisition after acquisition (and I say thank God for that! I ain’t got nothin’ but love in my life). No, the kind of role model who is honest, who talks about any struggles they have had with gentleness and with truth. The kind of role model who is compassionate about the human spectrum of emotion, and knows that the darker shades etched on the page bring out the beautiful bright hues of light. He is saying that we should become the kind of grown ups who say this: Don’t be afraid of the dark, it helps you fall in love with the light. It helps you become the light. When it is dark, and you are stumbling and fumbling everywhere for the switch, or for a match (where’s that fucking match?) to light the candle, or for the flicker of dawn – you will find it. It will come.
This is a surety, this is how we are made, this is what it means to be human. It is how life works, a communion of different shades which meld into the beautiful whole that is your existence. (Or come on, when you are depressed, the hole that is your existence). We tread and skid through hills and valleys, all the way through life. As you get older, you really start to see this, you learn it into your bones; how could you not? We are designed to keep afloat in the whirlpool emotions; we get to feel the same levels of deep joy as we do deep sorrow. That is the pay off for our journey into darkness.