All of us go through periods of suffering. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss, an illness, a crisis of faith, all of which can crush our spirits and cover our lives in darkness. It’s not only these unpleasant times that will come to define us, it’s also how we respond when these times come. Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. The book title inspired by the 16th Century Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross’ poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”
At the very beginning, Moore informs us that getting through a dark night of the soul is not for those looking for a quick fix:
“If your main interest in life is health, you may quickly try to overcome the darkness. But if you are looking for meaning, character, and personal substance, you may discover that a dark night has many important gifts for you.”1
Moore adds that we can sense a time of growth and preparation during difficult times:
“Sometimes in your darkness you may sense that something is incubating in you or that you are being prepared for life. You are going somewhere, even though there are no external signs of progress.”2
Moore brilliantly draws upon the struggles of patients in his years of therapy practice and how they navigated through their dark nights. Moore also weaves in the tale of Jonah from the Bible, tales from mythology, and the real life struggles of writers Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and others, who found meaning in the midst of their suffering.
Moore’s theme throughout the book is to guide us in how to properly frame our dark nights, embrace them, and seek to growth from the darkness.
“Think of a dark night as part of organic living. To avoid it would be like choosing only artificial food that never spoils. As a natural person, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions and go through many different kinds of experiences. Over the course of your lifetime, parts of you will grow and blossom, some will rot. To be sad, grieving, struggling, lost, or hopeless is part of natural human life. By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.”3
Moore touches upon the dark nights that can occur in life, relationships, spirituality, creativity, health, and aging, often using non-clinical methods, to help the reader understand how to get through the dark times. One way to navigate the dark nights, according to Moore, is to develop a philosophy of life, which he defines as:
“A philosophy of life is a bundle of wisdom you have gathered from your reading and experience. It is not a rigid ideology that allows no development and complexity. It’s a living thing, a developing idea about life that belongs to you alone.”4
I know on a personal level that whenever I find myself going through a period of suffering, I question the purpose of said suffering. I contemplate the purpose of my existence and my lot in life. However, Moore puts it succinctly, while drawing upon a them of Stoic philosophy:
“Where you fit in the scheme of things is not your choice. Your job is to deal honestly and generously with the fate given to you. It may be a brief life of sickness. You may be the most ordinary of people. On the other hand, you may be called sometime in your life to make an extraordinary act. Your task is to be prepared for the invitation offered, the chance to define yourself by an important choice.”5
I find Dark Nights of the Soul to be an excellent read and I recommend it to anyone facing a difficult time in your life.
1Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals.New York: Gotham Books (2004): xiii.