avatarWilliam Adams


Growing Is a Journey We Must Take Ourselves

Dark nights are inevitable. Learn how to deal with them

Photo by Daniel Jensen on Unsplash

There is an old phrase that says it is good to learn from your own mistakes. It is even better to learn from others’ mistakes. Even though you can learn from others, you must experience it for yourself before it becomes part of you.

This has been true in my experience with repairing pianos and pastoring people.

It is true of life.

I could read about, be told about, and even be shown how things can go wrong. I would still fall into the trap. I’d think, ah-ha, this is what I read about, what they told me would happen. Well, let’s not do that again.

It was only after I had experienced it for myself that I understood.

If there is no understanding, there is no growth. If there is no growth, it is only a matter of time before a bad thing will happen. If we don’t learn, it will happen again.

Sometimes, dark times cannot be avoided.

So, what do you do?

I have heard it said that an expert gets it correct every time. For the most part, that is true. A true master, though, is the one who can fix his or her own mistakes.

Some problems and faults are inevitable. The question is, do you know what to do when they happen?

Every prophet, spiritual teacher, disciple-maker, and person worth following has experienced a time of isolation, mundane labor, and shadowwork.

They have climbed the mountain, wandered the wilderness, dug holes and filled them up, washed the endless cycle of dirty dishes, faced their demons, and come out on the other side.

Why do we, who wish to follow them, assume we will not do the same?

In one sense, we seek to learn to avoid the potholes. We all want to skip down the path without turning an ankle. We take our vitamins and supplements to kick-start our immune system. We practice mindfulness to wrangle our thoughts.

We must understand that we cannot avoid what is necessary to advance our journey. There is some truth to “that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It is not fun. It’s just necessary.

When your dark night of the souls comes, what do you do?

Brian McLaren points to Jesus’ time in the wilderness as essential to his spiritual journey, one that Jesus invites his disciples to engage in as well. For growth to happen, you must pass through your own personal set of hells.

McClaren writes,

“Jesus needed that time of preparation in the wilderness. He needed to get his mission clear in his own heart so that he wouldn’t be captivated by the expectations of adoring fans or intimidated by the threats of furious critics. If we dare to follow Jesus and proclaim the radical dimensions of God’s good news as [Jesus] did, we will face the same twin dangers of domestication and intimidation.…” [1]

The same applies to every teacher, philosophy, theology, or spiritual practice. Good teaching can only take you so far. You must pass through. You must have your own experience. Growth comes when you learn how to fix your mistakes and deal with the sh*t that happens in life.

Jesus put it this way. If you are going to follow me, you must “take up your cross and follow me.” The cross carries the idea of self-sacrifice for others. Jesus didn’t mean we needed to die on the cross. He meant our own journey in the wilderness will reveal our own path that helps our world transform.

Islam views dark nights as signifying the purification and transformation of the soul. “And He found you lost and guided you” (Quran 93:7). Again, it is a necessary purging of the soul and raising to a clearer understanding.

“Swimming with the mysteries” is Tao’s understanding. “Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.” — Tao Te Ching

We all need time in the wilderness. We can’t just sit on the roadside of life and call ourselves followers of whatever practice we aspire to. If we are to imitate our teachers, we must allow life and God to inform us as it has them. It is the only way to grow.

Several phrases are supposed to give us courage when passing through a time in the wilderness, in isolation, in the mundane or dark night of the soul. They are meant to encourage the diligent practice of spiritual awakening when it seems complicated and pointless.

“You had to suffer shipwreck through your own efforts before you were ready to seize the lifebelt he threw you.” ― Eugen Herrigel, Zen in the Art of Archery.

“The only time you fail is when you fall down and stay down.” — Stephen Richards

No pain, no gain.

I don’t have to do this; I get to do this.

These are hard truths to swallow. People don’t want to hear them. I don’t want to hear them. We all want growth to be easy.

It is not.

And if we are lucky, dark nights happen more than once in our lifetime. That’s right, if you desire to keep growing, you will experience multiple dark nights of the soul. One, maybe more, will be very harsh. Others will be less so. All will be important. You will learn and grow from each one.

If you do, you will become more adept at mastering them. You will be able to endure and rise from each one. Grow from each one. Gain strength from each one. Share each one to enlighten others.

We are to do more than those who came before us. Every true teacher desires the pupil to surpass them. To do that, every teacher knows what we must go through. To grow, every pupil will go through a least one dark night.

I am not suggesting you long for or push for your personal dark night, your wilderness, or isolation. You are not able to create your own. Your desire to grow will bring them to you.

When they come, as you continue to grow, they don’t have to overwhelm you. Success in some things will lay the foundation for the fall in others. It will hit you and take you down. You will wonder what happened.

When those dark moments come, it will truly suck. Paradigms will shift. Your old ways and thoughts will not work. You will feel like a failure.

You’re not a failure. You’re growing.

You have plenty of high-powered teachers, including whomever you follow, who have gone through similar if not more difficult, situations.

Take heart. Breathe. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. You are following in the footsteps of all the masters.

I hope this article has been helpful. I would love to hear what you think or for you to share your own experience. Please leave a comment.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 94.

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