Are You Willing to Listen to the Darkness?

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I used to have a kind of waking nightmare.

It started in college. I’d be alone in the dorm bathroom, my toiletry caddy in hand, going down the aisle of shower stalls, their white plastic curtains like ghosts’ hems, all in a row.

All of a sudden, the dread of what lay behind those curtains would seize me. I imagined the worst: serial killers, malformed monsters, a cold fog with a black hole where a soul should be. I imagined the horror waiting for me to choose wrong. I imagined my scream of panic when I did.

Screwing up my courage, I’d yank a curtain aside, to see—nothing.

But my heart would chuckle, saying you never know. You never, ever know.

That dark fancy lasted more than a decade. But recently, I realized I don’t have it any longer. We have a shower curtain in my house and I’ve never once hesitated to open it. It doesn’t seem frightening to me anymore.

I’ve started wondering why.

At the time, I thought my fear was stupid. But my dismissiveness, I think, was wrong.

There wasn’t something behind any particular curtain, no. But there was lots of things hidden behind the surface of my life I was too afraid to confront.

I was afraid of the stories I was afraid to tell, the questions I was afraid to say out loud, the parts of my personality I tucked away as too offensive, too risky, too scary to share with others.

I didn’t even realize how many skeletons I’d hidden in my closet until I started pulling them out, one by one.

It was crowded in there.

But now that all that stuff’s gone, I don’t feel what’s behind curtains anymore.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she talks about nightmares stalking her. Someone recommended that instead of trying to avoid the dreams, she should ask it what it wanted.

She did, and instead of a monster, she found a part of herself that was waiting to be heard.

Often, the darkness has something to tell us.

Are we listening?

I wish I had taken my waking nightmare seriously. Not so I could have gotten everything in my inner-life spic and span, but because I spent so much time and energy telling myself I was dumb for being frightened. I told myself, over and over, that I was over-reacting, that I was a scaredy-cat or a drama queen.

I deserved better. My psyche was right on the money. I had something very real to be afraid of.

It undoes everything when you face your demons. It’s not for the faint of heart. There are often very good reasons why we stay stuck, why we make excuses and put off seeking healing. Facing our shame, our fear, and our inertia means being ready to let go of everything that has protected us in the past.

It’s easier to tell yourself you’re silly than get honest about why you’re filled with dread.

But you know what? We deserve better than to tell ourselves we’re just silly. We deserve better than impatience towards our shortcomings. If they’re crutches, we are crippled for good reason. Can we have a moment to respect what we’ve had to survive in order to get our limps?

It might seem easier to dismiss yourself, be curt and frustrated with your tender, shivering self.

But the part of yourself that is frightened is also incredibly resilient. Start taking it seriously, listening to its fears with real attention, and you might be surprised what it’s capable of.

If you dread something, stop telling yourself you’re silly.

If you give in to your weaknesses over and over, ask your weaknesses what they’re protecting you from.

Make friends with the darkness. Listen to what it has to say. Look dread in the face and see if you can read its lips.

I am ready to stop second-guessing what my psyche has to tell me. I am ready to start making friends with my dark places. I am ready to believe that even when it’s broken, my precious self is working as intended.

I am ready to live out this truth: a true nightmare is keeping our whole selves hidden. I am ready to affirm that a half-life is a bigger nightmare than anything hidden in the dark.

Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri

Writer at A Little Yes
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
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  • Heather, I am moved by your courage, and a little envious. Those of us who have feared what was “behind the curtains” were spot on … there was something, and we were afraid to check lest we be gobbled up. Since my default mode is “scaredy-cat” I need to tread lightly to get familiar with what’s been hidden. I know that I need support, and I need to go slowly. So I am moving in my own way.
    It would be nice to have one dramatic unveiling, after which all would be well, but usually there are thick onion layers. Bless you on your way. Bless me on mine. And if we each move at different paces – that’s what makes life so challenging. No comparisons.
    Thank you for the powerful reminder that our sisters have their issues and we can do more good by listening than by judging. Mary Ellen.

    • Oh, I so agree with this–and that’s part of listening to the dark; to know that we’re not ready yet, that we’re struggling, frightening and scared. Please don’t think I’m just cooler or braver than you. This is all a crazy struggle for me just like with you. I also got therapy during the points in my life I really confronted darkness: that helped me be ready to move through it. NO comparisons, and no shame. We have good reason for avoiding the things that scare us. (And up until recently, I thought of myself as a scary-cat, too–afraid of my own shadow. You know what, I had good reason for that, just as you do now.) I think being honest about our fear, and why we aren’t ready to move forward is part and parcel of being brave. Bless you on your journey, as you said.

  • Chuckled a tiny bit because for me it was our basement . . .
    I’ve been meaning to read something by Barbara Brown Taylor, and appreciate your recommendation of where to begin!

    • Oh, that one is really good. But An Altar in the World is even better. 🙂 So happy to get you started on her work!

  • Megan Hall

    I understand it keeps from moving forward. I get to frustrated with myself. It is way to much work. Even though it is not good it is easier to isolate yourself.

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  • pastordt

    Oh, yeah. YEAH. So, so true. And so beautiful written, Heather. Thanks so much.

  • desna dixon

    Hello and God bless i have a question for you and not really sure ow you are going to take this, but have you ever considered that this was something spiritual? I think sometimes we can forget the spiritual realm that we cant see. As a child i would have many nightmares that would reflect the lifestyle i grew up to. Yes they scared me but as i got older and away from that environment i stop having them. But also while i grew older i realized that it was my past, even as a child that was coming to haunt me and it was never really what i did, but what was done to me. I had to go through some things to see that something just want me to be happy. i would get joy and it would try to snatch that joy from me. So like you once i faced my fears, it eventually went and away and i found the peace that i had been searching for. The only true peace given was from Jesus. Hope you have finally found peace with it Go with God.

  • Gina

    Love this so much! I’ve been on a similar journey-just recently I was thinking the phrase, “not afraid of the dark” as a good one to mark this last season of my life. Thanks for sharing!

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