Like the moon, our worlds wax and wane. The candles on a child’s birthday cake mark more than years. Their gathering glow corresponds to the expansion of experience and perspective.
Then comes the waning. As we grow older, we notice that our circle of friends and relatives shrinks, that responsibilities and concerns give way to ailments and anxieties. A single candle on the cake seems somehow fitting. We’re grateful for the gift of life, but we know that its shadows are lengthening.
Poor people vacation by visiting uncles, aunts and cousins. You can’t say that you see new worlds, but it is a break from the everyday. As a child, I looked forward to visiting our cousins the Ruders. My cousin Mike had much better toys, though, if pressed, my memory supplies only a large, yellow Tonka Dump Truck.
When a family stays overnight with cousins, almost everyone ends up sleeping in a spot that’s unfamiliar to them. I remember waking in the middle of the night, unable to move or to free myself from the sheets. There were other people, unknown to me, in the bed. I was cramped against bars of some kind.
One can’t accurately judge a childhood fear from the expanse of a larger, adult world. All of childhood seems small from that vista. Try to imagine waking up in the unknown dark, unable to free yourself from your narrow enclosure. You have no world from which you came or to which you are going. You’re simply conscious and captive, confined in a small, terrifying corner of a dark world.
The Prophet Jeremiah, in contrast, was thrown into a cistern. He “sank into the mud” (Jer 38:6). At least he knew that the world was a larger place, that the cistern wasn’t the limit of his life.
The problem with our own dark holes is that we typically don’t know when we’ve fallen into them. More likely, we’ve crawled into a crack, not noticing how tight it was becoming. What sort of cisterns am I talking about? Life has a lot: depression, exhaustion, an illicit affair, addiction, an unrelenting anger. Some holes we fall into; some, we dig ourselves. Either way, once down there, we cannot extricate ourselves.
The first counsel is this: Look out for your brother or sister, who has fallen into a pit. He or she most likely cannot see the small cavity to which life has been confined. We never imitate Christ more faithfully than when we set the captive free, and no one is more enslaved than the person who cannot see, who thinks the shaft is all there is.
Second, listen carefully when someone tells you that you’re in a hole. There are truths about ourselves that we alone know. And there are others that everyone, except us, can see. Our worlds wax and wane because of those who enter and depart from them. Others bless and burden, and even bury our lives. We recognize avalanches, but we can be equally covered by the slightest of relentless snows.
Take the lifeline, the rope that has been thrown to you. Don’t let go. If your life is seriously disordered, you may not be able to discern adequately your own situation. Be willing to listen and to share what’s happening to you. You mustn’t tell yourself that you can handle this on your own, that this is your own little shame, a knot that you can untie, if only you struggle the more.
St. Ignatius of Loyola taught that evil seeks darkness because it weakens in the light. He said that the “enemy” “acts like a false lover, insofar as he tries to remain secret and undetected.” Consider Loyola’s “enemy” to be whatever oppresses our souls. He wrote:
The world needs a savior; we need each other, because we cannot pull ourselves out of cisterns. Humans can’t be human alone. We need others for that, because God made human nature, made our lives, radically incomplete.
In the name of the mercy that we owe each other, sling a rope when you see someone in a hole. And, for your own salvation, if one’s thrown to you, grab it.
Jeremiah 38: 4-6, 8-10 Hebrews 12: 1-4 Luke 12: 49-53