Last weekend I celebrated my 38th birthday. Readers of this blog know that I’m just coming out of a period in my life best described as “the dark night of the soul.” So, I decided to spend my birthday alone, reflecting on the past year, and where I stand on my journey to forty.
When I turned thirty, I vaguely remember hearing or reading that one’s thirties are about self-exposure—the kind of exposure that has nothing to do with nudity and everything to do with knowing oneself. In my head, I could only see one image—that of a person wielding a flashlight and looking into dark, cobweb-filled corners of one’s heart, soul and psyche. I imagined that by the time you hit 40, there would be no more secrets or skeletons lying in waiting. I vowed that before I turned forty, I would face the whole truth about myself.
Over the past 8 years, I periodically forgot about that image. I got side-tracked from my goal by a great fling or a fabulous summer vacation. But last week, after two seasons of avoiding leaks in our basement, the image came back to me. It was a Tuesday night, and the first time since buying my 125-year old house last April that I felt capable of going down below.
Brandishing my flashlight like a weapon, I forced myself to see and touch every inch of the basement. It was soon clear that the foundation suffered a few serious cracks and that a colony of carpenter ants had taken up residence inside one such crack. As I pushed my face and light closer to the ants, the image of a thirty-something-year-old woman wielding a flashlight came back to me. Looking into one’s basement felt analogous to peering into one’s soul. It was uncomfortable. And I was scared. But facing the truth about my basement enabled me to be capable of fixing it. And that is the grace we experience when we literally or figuratively “go downstairs.”
In a recent blog post, I explored the topic of soul mates. My conclusion was that I’d rather continue to be single than settle for a relationship that lacks a strong soul connection. That hadn’t always been the case. For most of my life, I craved the security and social acceptance of being partnered strongly enough to make unhealthy compromises to get there. I was afraid that being single wasn’t just a life circumstance—I feared that it was a reflection of my inherent goodness. My ego reasoned that if a man didn’t love me then there was nothing worth loving.
Shining a light into that dark corner of my psyche was scary. But when I waded deep inside the fear I could see that it simply wasn’t true. But to dismantle our fears we have to get close to them, to meet them eye-to-eye, without flinching. Only then can we liberate ourselves from their tyranny. Similarly, I had always avoided the thought that I might remain single for the rest of my life. But I spent the better part of a month facing that fear and realized that I was capable of living a full and rich life, whether single or partnered. I can now visualize myself in either scenario, and actually feel grateful for the advantages of each.
Going into dark places requires not just a source of light but the capacity to see what’s there. The eyes in which we behold the sun are different from those that help us navigate a cave. The latter situation requires eyes that gaze rather than look—eyes that are able to constantly refocus and take a longer, deeper perspective. They are what I call my “Soul Eyes.”
Recently, I tried to explore another dark spot—my relationship with my mother. My mother has been estranged from our family for nearly twenty years. For the previous twenty years, she was emotionally and spiritually absent. This was hard on me. For most of my life, it was tough to have a conversation with her, let alone share my hopes and dreams. As a result, I felt tremendous anger and resentment towards my mother. As an adolescent, I wanted she and I to “fake it”—to go shopping and share smiley brunches. I just wanted a mother, in body if not in spirit.
In my thirties, I thought about my mother from time to time and asked myself if I was ready to forgive her. Usually, the answer was no. When I thought about her, I could only see the hurt she inflicted on me, and the ways in which I felt betrayed. But those reflections only created more shadows. They came from my ego—the part of myself that could not accept the fact that my mother didn’t want a relationship with me.
But this spring, I woke up one morning feeling ready to forgive her. I rang her up and invited her to meet me. She accepted. As we talked over a cup of tea, I forced myself to put on my Soul Eyes and to really see her as she is. It was hard to admit that my mother seemed like a fragile soul buried beneath a mountain of pain.
After our tea date, we periodically spoke on the phone. And then one day, she called me and confessed that she was neither ready nor capable of having a relationship with me. She voluntarily estranged herself from me—her daughter—a second time.
I could look at the rejection and feel hurt or I could gaze into my mother’s troubled soul and feel compassion. What kind of pain must she be suffering to turn away from me? Now that I’m a mother, I know for certain that there are only two reasons why a mother would forsake her child: Either she suffers from immeasurable (inner) pain or she is trying to protect her child from something far worse.
I’m not sure if my mother will ever call me, or if she’ll ever be ready to love me. But having shined a light into that corner of my self, I know that her inability to love me isn’t my fault. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, when you add light to dark, they don’t fight each other, they combine and allow both sides to see.
Perhaps the greatest lesson of my thirties is just that. I don’t have to hide from my dark spots nor do I have to wage war upon them. I just need to practice adding light and looking deeply. I think this is what Ram Dass refers to as "Conscious Aging." And when I approach my shadiest spots from the soul level, I can make meaning—and peace—without blaming myself or others.
With only two more years to forty, I've still got so much more inner journeying to do. But I think I'm ready to let go of my goal of trying to completely know myself by 40. After all, our shadows are always shifting. Perhaps I should content myself with trying to see every part of myself—for the rest of my life—with Soul Eyes. That way, I'll be able to embrace whatever I find on the long and winding road to my own soul.