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Saint John of the Cross was a sixteenth century Spanish friar who became famous as a counter-reformation thinker. As a mystic, he believed that the pathway to God, and thus a true meaning in life, was not through Martin Luther’s precepts of Bible study, prayer and moral piety but rather through the times in each person’s life when one experiences, what he called, the “dark night of the soul.” Such times were described by John as a form of death – a journey that one’s inner self takes as it wrestles with the profound questions of existence, meaning and purpose.
As a Pastor, I am sometimes asked to listen to anguished stories of personal difficulties or troubles – and perhaps offer some help. A few months ago, I listened to someone pour out terribly negative emotions and thoughts. It was heart wrenching to hear. This person described feeling totally worthless, dirty, shameful, a loser, as someone with no hope, no expecation of goodness, and no feeling of being loved or cared for by anyone. These were not the words of a mere pity party but were soul deep descriptions of total defeat, despair and worthlessness. This person believed God had not only turned his back, but had given up and closed off any chance for redemption of him or her. It was the bleakest, saddest, and most hopeless self-description I have ever heard from anyone.
What struck me was that this person’s descriptions of being a loser were not the judgements or words of others. They were the product of how this person thought about the self. They were the stuff of a dark night of the soul and an inner voice. That voice was controlled by a figurative demon – a personally created devil that tore down, mocked, ridiculed and judged. This person could never – and will never – rise out of a dark night of the soul unless that demon – that destructive inner voice – is somehow changed or silenced.
We each have an inner voice that is constantly speaking to us. For many people, that voice is our worst critic. It is a creation of the human mind that people have sought to control since humanity first began to process complex thoughts and emotions.
One example of this phenomenon is Moses, a Biblical character who is not likely historical, but who is nevertheless described in the Exodus and Passover stories as having his own dark night of the soul experiences when he doubted his abilities, his purpose, and his plans. Moses protested against being seen as a leader, he claimed he was unskilled, unworthy, and common. Like many people, he was filled with self-doubt and low self-esteem. He had a violent temper, he vacillated in his leadership, he was often unstable in his decisions. His protests to God about his flaws echo those of our own inner voices that judge our failures, disappointments and flaws in ways that prevent us from acting and achieving.
It is now a historical fact that Mother Teresa experienced her own darkness of the soul during parts of her life. Indeed, some critics point to her self-doubts as proof that she was a fraud, a self-promoter and a closet Atheist who used charity as as a means to be famous. I do not judge her in that harsh light. She was a flawed human even as she acted as close to a saint as I can discern. I read in her private letters, which were made public several years ago, the same kind of voice that speaks to my soul and the same voice as the one I listened to a few months ago from a deeply anguished person. It is the same harsh voice that speaks to many of us.
Teresa wrote in one of her letters to her spiritual confessor, “Darkness is such that I really do not see — neither with my mind nor with my reason. The place of God in my soul is blank. There is no God in me. He does not want me. He is not there. Heaven, souls, why these are just words which mean nothing to me. My very life seems so contradictory. I help souls to go where? God does not want me. Sometimes, I just hear my own heart cry out: “My God” and nothing else comes. The torture and pain I can’t explain.”
Such soul darkness also affected another modern prophet. On April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assasinated, he too was in the midst of doubt and despair. King was in Memphis, Tennessee to help with a sanitation worker strike. It had not gone well. Many angry black youth resorted to violent acts during the protest march in which King participated. His non-violence movement had mostly been forgotten in the anger and turmoil of the late 1960’s.
He had become an advocate for the poor as well as an anti-war activist – two outgrowths of the Civil Rights movement but ones which earned him increased scorn. President Johnson was furious at King for his anti-Viet Nam war statements – seeing them as unfair coming from someone whom Johnson had helped tremendously by advancing Civil Rights laws. The FBI had King under surveillance, his phones were bugged and many conspiracy theorists have wondered if J. Edgar Hoover or Johnson had a role in his death. King was also planning a poor people’s march on Washington but it was getting little attention and even less support among the poor he was working to help. King, too, was a man of tremendous courage and insight but who had his own flaws. He had no interest in making lots of money but he liked silk suits and other small luxuries. He preached a call to civil morality even as he also had a wandering eye for other women. Such possible defects in his character make him even greater in my mind – a man who was not perfect but who rose above his flaws to pursue a more perfect world.
All in all, King had come to seriously doubt himself, his purpose, his non-violence movement and any hope he could continue to change things for the better. He was contemplating leaving his activist work and retiring to be President of Morehouse College.
I recount such stories – the person I listened to, Moses, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. – as a way to describe that force we each have inside us that can either advance or defeat us. That force – our inner voice – talks to us all day long. We hear it in our dreams and it is often the first thing we hear as we wake. It helps guide our lives, plan our actions and remind us to be our better selves. In its positive form, it can boost our confidence, empower us and help us perceive our true life purpose. In its negative manifestation, it holds us back, tells us lies, judges us, condemns us and causes us to discount our life purpose. For some, a negative inner voice constantly demoralizes. For others, the negative voice is temporary – only occasionally rising up out of brief sadness or trauma. For others, a constructive and helpful voice predominates. For still others, the inner voice acts in a negative way by overly boosting the ego – leading one to arrogance, over-confidence and insensitivity to others.
Changing our inner voice is the lead off subject in this, my third annual January series on uncommon New Year’s resolutions we might consider practicing. Last year, if you remember, we looked at the uncommon resolutions of accepting others as they are, lengthening our anger fuses and, finally, staying teachable. You can find those messages on our website. I don’t know if you resolved to practice any of those but I sought last year, as I do this year, to find overlooked ways we can resolve to improve ourselves. Most New Year’s resolutions – while still very good – are common – stopping smoking, losing weight, exercising more, saving money, etc.
But how many of us even perceive that our inner voices are a problem? It’s clear that the person I listened to a few weeks ago did not. Eckart Tolle, a contemporary writer and commentator on spiritual matters, says that it is one’s inner voice that brings about a dark night of the soul. That negative voice questions motives, values, and meaning in life. Every mistake one makes, every flaw in character are highlighted not by external enemies but this nagging, deceitful, nasty voice. That voice can condemn us to feel small, impotent and deeply troubled.
Other experts assert that this inner voice in us is often an echo of a parent or other person who has diminished us as a way to boost the critic’s own fragile ego. We repeat their words over and over – “you’re nothing, you’re no big deal, you’re a disgusting faggot, you’re hopeless, you will never amount to much, nobody really likes you, you’re ugly, you’re dumb” – whatever it is that we heard from another person which our inner voice then repeats over and over.
Most of all, experts assert that our propensity as humans is to judge other people and ourselves. It is one reason why the Bible, the new Pope and I all advocate efforts to stop judgmental attitudes. Who am I? Who are you? Who is the Pope to judge anyone else? – especially as we each have our own failures to correct. As I mentioned in a message on that subject this past October, judging and discerning very different. There is no malice or negativity in discernment. Such thinking merely observes facts. Judging ourselves and others involves applying labels of good, bad, moral, immoral, beautiful, ugly, smart, stupid, etc. It is motivated by jealousy, insecurity and a desire to tear down instead of uplift. The target of our labels and judgments is all too often our very selves. And the result is not good.
If we have labeled ourselves as stupid, what hope is there that we will speak up to others with a thought, apply for a challenging job or task, or believe what we think has value? If we tell ourselves we are hopeless failures, how can we nourish dreams and goals for a better future? How will we be able to act when opportunity does knock? If we believe we are ugly, we won’t notice the attention others pay to us, we’ll isolate and find ourselves endlessly lonely. Too often, for many of us, the inner voice is more subtle. It may not tell us we are total losers but it will plant seeds of doubt in our souls – doubts that hold us back from being and doing many things.
That voice, for me, has held me back from a lot in my life. It almost kept me from accepting this job even as part of me wanted the challenge and oppportunity. But my inner voice whispered to me I might fail, that I’m not good at public speaking, that people would dislike me. Our inner voices tell us a story we repeat in our minds – and, if we allow such thoughts to persist, they become self-fulfilling prophecy. Experts call this our mythology of the self – one that is not based on reality but is rooted in personal criticism, doubt or, on the opposite side, an inflated view of the self.
A negative inner voice too often sees everything in black or white. An event or a personal mistake are seen as either all good or all bad. This voice also overgeneralizes – believing that if we say or do something one time, we always act that way. Our voice tells us we are never good and always bad. And, as such, this voice discounts or ignores anything positive. We might do many wonderful things in life, in our jobs, in our families. But one mistake is overblown and generalized. There is nothing good in us. It’s all bad.
The negative inner voice jumps to conclusions by determining a bad outcome even before it happens. It magnifies minor problems beyond any sense of reality and it uses emotional reasoning – “I feel guilty, therefore I am a bad person.” Again, such statements to the self can be sly and subtle – quietly insinuating a possible failure, negative outcome or judgment of character.
The most important thing we can do to quiet or change a negative inner voice is to begin to realize when it talks to us. That is not an easy task. I’ve tried and I could do it for a while but I soon forgot to note when my voice spoke to me. Many experts believe we should keep an inner voice diary by writing down exactly what our voice tells us. We can take an inventory each day and write down exactly – without any censoring – what it is that our inside voice has said. After a week or more, we should look back and identify patterns in what we tell ourselves.
Once we identify the negative ways our inner self talks to us, we can then apply our reason to correct it. We should reality test it. What evidence is there to support what I just told myself? Is it fact based or an interpretation? What is the liklihood such an event will happen? What are alernative explanations or ways to understand an event, problem or personal mistake?
We should stick just to facts and avoid labels. “Oh, I forgot my mom’s birthday.” instead of “I’m a neglectful and bad son.” We should also engage in what some experts call ‘possible thinking’. Instead of “I’m fat”, one can say, “I want to lose ten pounds. I have the ability to do that.” Just in this one example we see the difference between discernment and judgement. One statement labels the self, tears down the self, despises the self. Such negativity is unlikely to lead to any kind of positive action. The other voice simply discerns a fact – a desire to lose some weight. It then uplifts the self by acknowleging an ability to accomplish a goal. This form of possible thinking does not guarantee success but it is far more likely to stimulate action. That is how we must learn to talk to ourselves and to others – to encourage, to lift up, to support, to be gentle. Harsh and judgemental words to ourselves and others are destructive and are never kind.
A true test to apply to our inner voice is to ask what would one’s best friend say about a situation or mistake? Best friends love us as we are. Best friends know our flaws but see tremendous good in us. Best friends speak truth in gentle ways. Best friends want good things for us.
And that ought to be how our inner voice treats us. Indeed, our inner voice ought to be our very best friend – one whose love for us is reality based and not overinflated with ego. But it also should see who we really are in all of our goodness. It should see our potential and cheer us forward. It should love us uncondtionally – not flinching from the need for improvement and admission of flaws, but loving us anyway.
I don’t know if the person in despair who I listened to has been able to change the inner voice. I hope some first steps have at least been taken. We see in the story of Moses that he persevered despite his negative self-talk. Something inside propelled him onward – giving him the confidence to act and lead. So too with Mother Teresa. She came to find that her dark night of the soul was actually a good thing – a way for her to better understand suffering and to reach out in ever more profound ways to alleviate the despair all around. As she came to believe and write, poverty and hunger create physical pain. But the greatest pain is experienced by those who are alone, unloved and unwanted. She could identify with those who felt deeply alone and thus she redoubled her effort, and those of her fellow sisters, to be the faces of love to the leper, the aged, the dying man with no family.
And so too did Martin Luther King, Jr. rise out of his dark night. In the sermon he had prepared for the Sunday after he died, he wrote of pursuing his non-violent goals, of knowing that the battles against hate, violence and poverty would be long ones but that hope must still prevail. As Julian Bond said after he had read the sermon, King preached his way out of despair. His positive inner voice took control.
We have that ability too. An inner voice in us waits to be heard that will champion our lives, our dreams, our abilities. Let’s listen to that voice. Let’s resolve in this New Year of 2014 to muzzle the negative voice. There is a light of great goodness and potential in each of us – no matter our age, health or condition. But that light will never shine to its full brilliance unless and until we believe in its power. In order to believe it has great power, we can first tell ourselves over and over that good things lie ahead, that we can literally change the world, that we can and will make a difference.