I don’t know much about Abe Lincoln except what everyone knows: that he was shot in the theatre (ouch) but apparently before he died he suffered from depression. ‘If there’s a worse place than hell, I’m in it,’ is how he put it. ‘Ouch’ doesn’t begin to cover that.
Nelson Mandela was despised as a nobody, imprisoned for twenty-seven years and yet became the first black leader of South Africa. The regime took away his marriage to Winnie and his only son.
Maya Angelou became an elective mute as a child after suffering abuse, as her memoir ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ relates. And yet she rose to become one of the foremost authors of the US and gave a recital at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
What these people have in common is both darkness and greatness – and that’s no coincidence. Most of us spend our lives avoiding darkness. It’s painful and confusing; it’s unpleasant and frightening. It can be absolute hell with no let-up. Yet in the darkness lies the way to greatness.
Darkness comes when everything else runs out; when all the tried-and-tested methods for keeping your life going have ground to a halt, when habit seems meaningless and loved ones remote. The darkness comes when you are at the absolute end of your strength; when there is not one ounce of energy left within you to try to make things work any more. It’s like floating on a black sea: there’s nothing you can do but let it happen.
It’s the same journey Dante made when he ‘woke to find himself in a dark wood where.. the right way was lost.’ Dante has one hell of an Easter weekend; going through the inferno on the Friday, purgatory on the Saturday and finally arriving in heaven on Easter Sunday. What’s interesting is that he never loses sight of the world ‘outside’, knowing at any moment what day and hour it is, where the sun and moon are and whereabouts he actually is (hell is located in the centre of the earth in his cosmology.)
Hell is the worst thing the human imagination can conceive: read James Joyce’s sermon from ‘Portrait of the Artist’ and then try sleeping, if you can:
I couldn’t. But you don’t need to believe in Biblical sin and damnation to read Dante. Like all works of genius it transcends the age which spawned it, and today it can be read as a dark night of the soul; a journey through the depths of depression towards realisation and enlightenment. In Dante’s cosmology the damned are quite separate from those in purgatory who, though they suffer, have hope. But we need not read it so: for us, as for Dante himself, there can always be the possibility of transformation, of transition to a better place.
Nowadays we have little concept of sin and punishment. We have thrown out the sins of our fathers and decided that we are our own judge, jury and executioner. But the greatest sins are those which separate us from others and from our common humanity – which is why the centre of Dante’s inferno is not fire but a frozen lake.
What melts the frozen lake is compassion. One of the most moving scenes from the film ‘Gandhi’ is where a man comes to him in despair. ‘I am going to hell,’ he tells the Mahatma. ‘I took a Muslim child and bashed his brains out against a wall.’
‘I know a way out of hell,’ says the ever-practical Gandhi. ‘You must find an orphaned Muslim child and raise him yourself – as a Muslim.’
The way out of hell is reconciliation. Reconciliation melts the frozen lake and allows people to come together. Where would South Africa have been without the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Mandela instituted? Where would Maya Angelou have been if she had stored up bitterness and hatred in her heart? Instead she turned the hell of her childhood into a powerful work of art. Reconciliation is the way out of hell.
None of us knows for sure what happens when we die, but anyone can find out what happens when we live. Embrace the darkness, find the truth within it, and move on.
Here’s an article I found helpful when writing this post: