Am I writing away from my pain?

Let me explain. I recently described this past summer in conversation as my Dark Night of the Soul. It's been an incredibly painful four-ish months, from late April/early May into the now of late August. I've cried more than I ever thought I could.

I was never a crier before I went to Austria three years ago. Then I remember at the farewell party I wept like a baby.

That was almost three years ago to the day of this writing. Funny how that works.

I return to Austria over and over again in my thoughts and dreams.

Photo by my friend Laura. 

Photo by my friend Laura. 

This summer has been full of me crying. Crying in church almost every week. crying on the phone to a friend, crying along to the tune of what has become my unofficial crying song ("Unlikely Lovers" from William Finn's brilliant musical Falsettos).

And through it all, I have also written. I have written essays that I do not feel ready to publish, essays that try to skirt the details but cannot. I have written posts that turned into me rambling about what I wanted to do that day blended with a sharp cocktail of knife-wrenching anguish. Essays that involve me wishing I could talk to my counselor while I write around and around and AROUND the discomfort and anger and fear and grief and the ever-lurking, blue sadness that peers over my shoulder -- the pain that I'm trying to pin down but I cannot.

I am trying to understand it. I am trying to wrestle it and pin it like Jacob tried to do with God.

I've been reading a lot about the Patriarchs lately. Capital P, lest we all mistake my meaning for something political (God help us all).

I am trying to dissect my pain into something that I can put my hands on, drum my nails on, point to and say, "Here. This, right here, this is the cause. This is the thing. This is the kernel, the center orb."

I haven't been able to do it. Everything I've come up with, everything I've written down -- nothing is quite right. And maybe this is because pain is ineffable blah blah blah. I have not my counselor's ability to put it into perfect words that make tears spring to my eyes. I also have not her distance from the situation; she is not living inside my overactive head.

I am overcomplicating, but every time Lauren (my counselor) reframes what I am feeling, it is incredibly simple. And I find myself unable to arrive at the simplicity, the great yet gentle simplicity, that makes tears spring to my eyes with the truth. Kind truth. It never beats me upside the head.

And I was writing a rambling something this morning, which is actually incredibly healing, and I realized I was writing away from my pain.

Again, let me explain.

Trying to understand the pain prevents me from experiencing it.

If I feel like I have to define it, I can't feel it. Because trying to define it distances me from it.

I'm trying to find out what it is, and we can't see what it is when we're in it. And so, by trying to find out what it is, I am not allowing myself to feel.

And even as I write this, I laugh at myself. Because I can turn even feeling into a finely honed philosophical argument, into a science with microscopes and needles.

I am an artist with a logician's brain. Of course I am. That means deep feelings coupled with a deep need to understand. ANd none of them are ever done with me. My Big Feelings turn me inside out, and all the while I'm trying to get out of my own skin, outside my blood vessels, outside my gray matter in order to understand the way I am being spun outward from my internal organs that I find are suddenly on the outside of my body.

And if I keep writing this way, I'll keep writing ABOUT things and not actually experiencing them.

That's a concept that's been on my mind recently. I don't want to just talk about adventure, courage, all the things I write about here. I want to actually live them out.

I have to practice what I preach. I have to put my money where my mouth is. I have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. All the alliterative cliches (how is it that each of these cliches is alliterative, y'all?).

Sometimes I have to put on the unofficial crying song (quickly becoming the official crying song) and just sob my face off.


See, I keep trying to put the pain into words. I keep hoping that if I can do this, then it'll somehow be purged and go away.

But I don't know. I don't know how.

I keep showing up to my life and saying that I don't know. I'm saying it in my prayers over and over again. I'm screaming it. I don't know and I can't. And honestly, that's where faith begins, when we come to the end of self. But I don't even know that I always believe that I can't.

I keep hoping that I'll come upon something within myself that can. Even while I am wracked with despair that I will not, and I will never be better.

I am a bundle of hope and despair and nerves and skin. Hope and despair hold each others' hands and kiss each other passionately and at the same time try, very subtly, to strangle one another by asphyxiation. Each one wants to outdo the other. Despair rises, peaks, and is met by a breaker of hope. Hope, meanwhile, feels frail, passing, like a sick person. And despair just feels like lethargy and darkness and the pit. Nothing hard, nothing sharp. Just waves of gray, in different iterations. Hope is cream-colored. Despair is stormcloud.

I think that's part of what it means to be a human in a world that is fallen. Hope + despair, coexisting.

(The question is: Which one will win?)

By writing about it, by reading, listening to ALL THE PODCASTS, talking, working, all these distractions -- I am ignoring what I am experiencing inside. And thus I am ignoring a significant section of my life. I am refusing to really live. Because life is lived in pain, too.

Now, let's not all go be sadists. But we all know that's not what I'm saying here.

What I'm saying here is that life is lived in pain, so when we encounter it, let us not run away.

Let us not try to grapple with it and understand it, because guys, sometimes stuff just sucks. Sometimes you're just sad. Sometimes you are just having the dark night of the soul and you don't know what to do.

You see, we want to be genuine. We want to be real. We do not want to lie about how and who we are inside.

But we also hate the sadness.

So we do not know what to do.

I and sadness are not going to be best friends.

But maybe I can keep company with it for a while.

Maybe I can hold its hand.

Maybe when the insult that's been added to injury digs her clawlike fingernails into my palm, I can decide not to let go.

Maybe when fear's cold clamminess seizes me and I have an Apoplectic Fit of the Soul (similar to the Dark Night), I can decide not to obey, but I can also decide to listen, to ask questions. Maybe even to hug the fear.


I am running from my negative emotions, but they are part of life, too.

They're a part of the adventure.

(We all knew I would get there eventually.)

We are afraid that the sadness and the grief and the anger and the knives in our respective bellies, ever-twisting, ever so slowly -- we are afraid they will destroy us. That they will crush us with their sheer mass and weight and dull-edged, life-expelling horror.

We are afraid of the dark.

And I, Sara -- I love light and light metaphors so much that of course I'm afraid of the dark.

My word for this year is childlike. Children are afraid of the dark and no one condemns them for it. Somehow when you are an adult you are supposed to grow out of it, but we don't, not really. Because in the dark is where the evil happens, and we afraid that if we venture too far into the blackness outside, that we will die.

Maybe, to be childlike, I can lean into my fear of the dark. But it also means noticing the dark.

I don't really notice physical darkness anymore. I notice sunrises, sunshine, even rain -- I notice daytime, and anyone who knows me at all and has a conception of my personality will be nodding their heads and going YEP.

But I never notice night. I never pause to consider what nighttime can teach me.

Or not teach me. Because I'm a student at heart, and I love this about myself, but after a while I'm tired of filling my head with information and what I need is to get outside my gray matter.

To turn myself inside out.

Maybe what I need is to go outside on a summer night and sit there and look up at the stars. Or maybe it needs to be on a night that the sky is veiled and the moon is covered and I can see nothing.

Maybe I need to turn off the lights in my room and try to sit there without falling asleep and just be in the darkness and see what it is.

What can physical darkness teach me, I wonder.

I was going to write I want to notice. But I don't know that I want to. I just think it would help me feel.


I've gotten to the self-diagnostic part of this essay, and that's a sign for me to stop. To save the post, close my tab. Check my email. Sit here and drink my La Croix. Whatever.

(See, I'm still self-diagnosing.)

Writing never fixes. Dominic Dromgoole, the former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, says that writing only stirs the pot.

I never leave the page with some kind of understanding. If anything, writing just binds me up deeper into the inexpressible, the more I try to express it.

But I do leave new, if for no other reason than that I have faced down the fogginess in my bleeding heart and not been able to describe it.

And there's something comforting about that.

This photo is also the title photo and is by Elizabeth Zito. 

This photo is also the title photo and is by Elizabeth Zito.