A number of years ago I was totally surprised by a sudden and complete entry into spiritual darkness. In retrospect, I can see I was happily bustling through life swiftly and almost on auto pilot when I had a change in supervisors. Within months it was like someone had switched the light off in my work life. What I had been praised for as acts of true creativity was now labeled as impulsive acts not in line with the corporate structure; what had been seen as true organizational skills were now cast as controlling and obsessive.
What surprised me the most though was how quickly I had fallen into the basement of my own psyche. I had thought of myself as having inner strength and a strong faith. However, I really was living on thin ice. The reality was that my life was filled with a great deal of (unacknowledged and not fully appreciated) good fortune. It wasn't that I or my faith was strong, it was that the tests were few.
During that dark period though, some wonderful things actually happened after I decided, "Well, as long as I am in my psychological basement, I might as well look around and see what I can learn." I told a friend, who was also a Jungian therapist and a Jesuit priest, about this. I said, "You know, I would never have chosen to go into my basement, but during that darkness some unforeseen wonderful things occurred -- ones that paradoxically I wouldn't have recognized had I not fallen so quickly and as far as I did."
He replied, "No one voluntarily goes into their shadow, Bob. They are pushed! However, at least you knew enough to look around."
Two things I did discover still stay with me today. One was the need to be fully in the now. Recently I came across a statement made by one of James Joyce's characters in one of his novels: "Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body." That is the way I had lived for much of my life. I was either in the silver casket of nostalgia or preoccupied with the future, never home with myself and others in the now.
The other lesson was to appreciate "the little things" more completely. The reason for this is that one of the first rays of light in this dark hallway of my life was a small gesture done for me by someone many years back. I had been asked by Cardinal Bernadine to stop (while on my way to work with those ministering to tortured and abused Indians in Guatemala) so I could speak to his priests in Chicago. He wanted me to give a presentation to them on resilience and self care, which were and remain my specialty.
When I got there I asked him if he would also be willing to do me a small favor. I needed a review on a new book of mine that was coming out. He told me to send it on and that he would do what he could. However, after I gave my presentation, he came up to me with obvious enthusiasm and said. "That talk was great, Bob. Just what the fellows needed. Please send me that manuscript. Not only am I willing to do it. It would be an honor."
I did receive the review from him soon after I sent the manuscript to him. I also planned to thank him for it personally at my house over dinner but shortly after that he developed a cancer that would kill him within several years. So, I never did get to thank him for a gesture that I am sure he didn't think much about after he did it -- though it would turn out to be extremely important to me when I was in my own basement years later.
The "little things" we do for people -- a smile, some help, a listening ear, a small surprise -- all may seem to be acts we can leave undone. Yet, if we only knew how helpful they can be we would never omit them from our day.
During this stressful period in our lives and world, it is easy to get discouraged. As we see our friends, family members and maybe even ourselves suffer, we worry. Some of us even despair. Yet, as I learned in my own darkness and in the work I have done for others since, when we are in the dark hallways of life, I look and help others become aware of the "little things" I can do for others and help them see what has been done for them. It doesn't make the darkness lift any more quickly, nor does it prevent us from going into it when we must. But, it does teach and remind us of so much more that is important. This is so because when you take the humility that you experience during darkness and add it to knowledge you get the wisdom to appreciate what the world might set aside as unimportant. And when you take this very wisdom and add it to compassion you get selfless love, and it is that experience that makes life worthwhile in ways that success and good fortune, tough fun to experience, could never achieve.
The bottom line: Don't miss the wonderful little things people are already doing for you as well as the opportunity to return the favor to the world through your own gestures of kindness. They can make all the difference, especially now, when things seem so tough for so many.