What is dying to self? If you have a Christian background you will have heard this phrase again and again, but what does it mean?
If you are a long-term caregiver you have been experiencing “dying to self” as more and more of your own desires, your sense of identity that comes from work and being with friends is lost due to the increasing demands of caring for your loved one(s). Regardless how it is conceived and experienced, though there is a danger and in this dying to self experience, there can also be an amazing opportunity.
Christians started out as followers of Jesus and today some who are seeking to renew or strengthen their faith return to following Jesus. Their challenge is to sort out the meaning of doing this in the 21st century. In Jesus’ time his disciples literally left what they were doing, both their occupations and families, to walk with Jesus throughout modern day Palestine and Israel. In so doing their normal sense of identity was challenged and then stripped away as increasingly they were no longer fishermen, tax collectors or whatever else they had been doing until He showed up. They were now his followers. After his death and resurrection, they were galvanized into becoming leaders of his following and soon thousands more were being baptized in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
Much has happened since that time. Churches are no longer showing any pattern of life or identity reminiscent of the early church, no matter how much they claim to emulate it. This brings us back to the opening question “What is dying to self”?
For Jesus and his disciples, it literally meant leaving everything behind to follow him, career, family and town. But while the churches have lost that initial enthusiasm and inspiration, as a human race we have continued to develop and deepen our understanding of spirituality and the inner journey we each find ourselves on in this life. Sufi masters such as Rumi and Hafiz or saints like John of the Cross, St. Therese of Lisieux and Francis and Clare of Assisi, continued to develop and deepen their consciousness of what it truly meant to be human including their understanding of dying to self.
Present-day psychological self-understanding has been continuing this exploration of self. There is Winnicott’s notions of a false self which is constructed in order to survive. Under this false self is a repressed an undeveloped true self. These notions have helped us understand the death of the ego in order to become everything we were created to be.
In this season of advent, the focus on the dark night of the soul connects easily to the challenges caregivers face, particularly when they have reached burn-out. They intuitively understand the language and symbolism of the dark night of the soul, which was first introduced by John of the Cross as an ascetical practice that led to union with God. While such ascetic practices are no longer part of our culture and understanding, “dark night of the soul” resonates deeply with anyone who finds themselves struggling with depression. Both caregivers and followers of Jesus today find themselves in this dark night of misery and need support, as did the monks and nuns who found support in their communities, their prayers and discipline.
We understand now that this being plunged into personal darkness is in fact the “unrepression” of what has always been there in suffering souls, the result of some trauma or neglect during their upbringing. Sensitive souls, those wounded early in life, are more easily cast into this internal darkness. But when they are supported, they pass through it and are more likely to become wounded healers, lights in the darkness for others who are struggling.
Whether you are a caregiver, a follower of Jesus or a devotee of another teacher or way, if you find yourself in this dark night of the soul, this feeling of being cut off from God and from everything else that matters, trapped in your misery, then you need support if you are to navigate through this “death of self” into a better place. This is in part why I write. I write that I might be healed as reading and thinking about these things helps me process my own inner turmoil and suffering. I write that others might find comfort and support in reading someone else’s story, that they might recognize their struggles and see the value in mine, perhaps even coming to value this dark night of the soul. I write that you might reach out to others around you who may not know of your struggle but have the love and energy to support you if only you do reach out.
If you have stumbled on this blog but are not suffering the dark night of the soul, be assured that there are many around you who are and what they truly need are understanding friends who listen non-judgementally and who compassionately contribute practical assistance to today’s overburdened saints, caught in their commitments to their loves ones, surviving perhaps but not thriving. Dying to self, self-sacrificial love, has a heroic and transformational side to the experience, but suffering without light can be unbearable. Reach out so that one less caregiver predeceases the one they are caring for, so that one more wounded and burdened soul might become a wounded healer someday.