At a Sunstone Symposium a few years ago, I was talking with a person who ran a popular podcast. She mentioned that one of her hopes was that the podcast would help people to feel not so alone when they went through faith crises.
Hearing this made me think back on a “dark night of the soul” I went through—a time when I most definitely felt alone. Would it have been a more bearable and more constructive experience had I not felt so isolated, I wondered? Or had that aloneness been an essential part of the experience?
I can’t know for sure, of course, but I do know that, given the choice, I would much prefer to go through that kind of struggle with a community.
However, Joseph Campbell and untold numbers of fantasy movies have made the point that the moment a person can know his or her soul best—the moment the soul is at its most malleable—is when a person is alone and in deep conflict. If friends are nearby to lend their support, the struggler never knows the depths of his or own strengths or abilities. Indeed, a popular understanding of Jesus’s atonement and crucifixion is that he had to do some of it without the presence of the Father.
It seems to me that, with the advent of the Internet, and especially blogs, it’s becoming more and more difficult to have a potent dark night of the soul with its attendant self construction.
During my particular dark night, which lasted for a few years, I did have the Internet, and I belonged to a few discussion boards and email lists, but blogging culture had not yet surfaced. It never crossed my mind that I might write short reflections on my struggles with religion and post them on the Internet for other people to comment on. What I did do was pour hundreds of hours into writing personal essays that I hoped to eventually publish.
In a way, I was no different from a blogger today, writing down private thoughts for public consumption. However, I think there was one important difference: I wrought those essays alone, seeking no feedback on them until I had spent a significant amount of time revising—and even then, I only sought the input of a few trusted friends. I came to understand that my best writings weren’t those that reflected me, but those that altered me. Isolation (which I had to inflict upon myself) was essential to those discoveries.
It seems to me that the Internet has emphasized the social aspect of writing so much that drawing on the virtues of solitude is becoming progressively more difficult. I have certainly felt the high that comes from posting something that garners a lot of comments. But are we being trained to share so quickly—bringing other people into our journeys—that we never get to see what we can do alone?