The Price of Finding Depth

Today is my seventh session of counseling. It has been three months since my cousin shot himself on Christmas Day. He would have been my age—twenty—in sixteen days.

I’ve grown comfortable in this room, in this red plush chair—enough so that I don’t always have to cross my legs or clutch my own hands in my lap. When I don’t stare at the counselor in the same rocking chair across from me, which is most of the time, I stare at the full bookshelf to his left, the books with spines listing every disorder and mental ailment imaginable, the window next to me that looks out of the reverent, red-brick Nazareth Hall, my view framing a corner of Lake Johanna, the cold and gnarled oaks twisting across gray water.

We always meet on Friday’s, during what the college calls “praise chapels.” It’s a weekly event most students flock to, leaving the century-old campus quiet and deserted.

The first praise chapel I went to after Christmas, I stood and listened while a peppy worship leader belted out a Hillsong ballad about “victory over death,” the whole auditorium on their feet and clapping. I fell into my seat after about five minutes and wept, my hair like a curtain, my face in salt-soaked hands the rest of the hour. I haven’t been to a praise chapel since.

My counselor and I don’t always talk about him—sometimes we talk about poetry and art, or we discuss blogs and books we’ve read. But he always comes up. I try not to be surprised by the fact that I always have more to say.

I tell my counselor the question that I asked my roommate last night while she was sprawled on the thinly-carpeted dorm-room floor doing theology homework, clacking on laptop keys, the white Macintosh apple glowing in my direction.

Are you satisfied with your life?

She did not hesitate when she said yes. When she asked me the same, I responded that I don’t know whether I’ve ever been truly satisfied by anything. That I am always seeking, always trying, always groping for something more. And it’s exhausting.

My counselor looks at me quiet with focused eyes, waits while I feel my face wrinkling up in frustration, my palms sweating in this blanketing room that smells of the red hard candies on the desk. All my life, I tell him, I’ve always seen the worst fate possible as feeling and experiencing life shallowly. But what I’ve forgotten until now is that the deepest depths of the ocean are the darkest and loneliest places on earth.

It is saying these words aloud that makes me crush a plush Kleenex against my eyes, stop while I try to control my voice and breath. My counselor tells me I feel isolated from people because I feel and experience things in ways that most twenty-something college students do not. He says I am “burdened by insight.” His statement flattering and lonely all at the same time.

When I walk outside, it is April and it is empty and it is snowing—light, gentle flakes, not so much falling but rather chasing themselves around my head and the mass of steely sky. I walk through a world in slow motion. The air is fresh and spills down my throat like ice water, settling somewhere deep inside of me, cleansing me. I can smell the water stirring in the lake behind me, the weather-worn dirt that is finally exposed. I tip back my head, stop on the walk overlooking the campus courtyard, stand utterly still.

Later today I will have classes, and I will read books, and I will think thoughts about all kinds of things different people want in my brain. But in this moment, my thoughts are mine and God’s. I am my own. I am being laced in white, and I am healing in the only way I know how.

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Sitting in It

Darkness itself isn’t daunting. Rather, people fear what they don’t know, what they can’t see. We’re afraid of what lies outside of our control. We’re afraid of how the darkness disarms us.

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of hearing Twin Cities author, Addie Zierman speak a bit about her new memoir Night Driving: A Story of Faith in Darkness, and I left truly thinking about darkness in ways I’ve never had before. The way Addie puts it, we are so afraid of being apart from light, apart from sight and goodness and everything else light typically stands for, that we too often create our own artificial ways to eliminate the darkness around and in us. And at the end of it all, our artificial light is just distraction from what we don’t want to face.

If you look at the physical make-up of the world for five minutes you realize that darkness is a crucial element. It passes but it never really ends. The night gives way to daylight and the winter will eventually melt into summer, and though there is a season for everything, nobody claims that seasons are a one-time thing. They always cycle back. And just as cities full of blinding artificial light pollute the air, so do our attempts to block out the night pollute our ability to truly see and understand.

In the months after my cousin’s suicide, part of me is tempted to ignore, well, everything. It’s easier to ignore the poetry on my shelf and watch Netflix, it’s easier to avoid friends and people and bury myself in school work, it’s easier to surround yourself with whatever dulls the feeling, distracts, keeps your thoughts from where you don’t want them to go.

But even though it can feel easier, it’s the last thing we really want. Though paradoxical, I think we ache for the reality of what makes us ache. We crave vulnerability and authenticity and lives capable of genuine thought and feeling. We want stories of depth–even if the depths are the deepest and darkest places we can go.

Last week in my poetry class, the professor assigned each of us terms that we were to define and present on in front of the class. Now, I’ve had two years worth of poetry classes and feel fairly knowledgeable in that kind of thing. But while everyone else gets terms like metaphor and personification, I get a John Keats concept I’ve hardly ever heard of before. Great.

And when I come to the professor’s office for help, she looks at me and says that’s right, I gave you a hard one because I thought you’d be able to handle it. 

The term Negative Capability in poetry is described as the ability to stay in a point of suspension without reaching after logic or reason. It’s being in a place of discomfort or confusion or even a place that makes no rational sense, but not avoiding or fleeing that state.

And now that I’ve looked into the concept, I can’t stop thinking about it in my writing or in my life. Where I am in my life is a place that I don’t necessarily have answers or explanation for. I’m in an extended place of doubt and difficulty. I’m in a place that not many can reach me in. But I know that the best thing I can do for myself is to just sit in it.

I will stay in the darkness because I am called to be in the depths. I can be suspended in darkness because it is shaping me to not rely on the perception of control that fails me. I’m staying in with the grief and the tears and the counseling and the poetry because I don’t want want to fear feeling–whether it be joy or pain.

I’m sitting in it because it’s the only way to fully experience the light.