The Dark Night Of The Soul - Pt 1

What is The Dark Night of the Soul? It’s a feeling most of us have at three in the morning (or even, for weeks and months at a time) when we feel totally alone. When we feel unbearably lost. When we ask, or pray, and do not hear any reply. It can be a period where just getting out of bed to do our daily tasks seems like the hardest thing to do. Brushing our teeth hurts. Taking a shower is painful. Sending out one more headshot or calling one more agent, or having one more conversation about “who we want to be” and “what we really want to do with our lives” feels like someone sticking a hot poker up our backs! It’s those periods in life when all we’d rather do is pull the covers back over our heads, and shout for the rest of the world to “STOP!”

The term is used often in pop psychology, but it’s been a reality, and a difficult part of life, for people of all faiths and cultures, all eras and disciplines, forever. Even Mother Teresa struggled to find meaning in her otherwise, very profound life. She wrote to her spiritual mentor, Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, in 1979, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

The term was coined by the Catholic mystic, St. John of the Cross, from Spain, sometime around 16th century. It is rumored that 18th century mystic, St. Paul of the Cross, struggled with a “dark night” that lasted 45 years – as have so many other spiritual seekers.

You may be wondering why I write here, in an acting blog, about spiritual and psychological struggles. I’ll tell you. For the last twenty years, I myself struggled hopelessly with these kids of issues, as have most of my students and friends. We find ourselves longing to live profound and meaningful lives, full of art and poetry and theater and music, full of laughter and spontaneity, and life-changing moments, where we inspire strangers and the world, to be better, live deeper, and speak more clearly – all while waking up each day to go and sell mascara at Macy’s, or wait tables at Dennys, or drive trucks on lousy infomercial shoots.

We have masters degrees, and doctorates, and wonderful liberal arts educations; we have supportive families, and lovely boyfriends and girlfriends, who believe in us, and try to tell us “everything will be okay!” And still, we wake up in the middle of the night asking ourselves, “Is that all there is?” We wake up wondering, “Why are we so unhappy?" We live in cheap apartments when our friends are living, back in our hometowns, in beautiful new homes. We give up love, and having babies, and health insurance, just so we can go on one more audition, for one more year, and we ask ourselves, “Is it worth it?”

My question to you is deeper that that. In fact, I ask more questions, like, “What do you really care about? What brings you joy, and why did you get into acting in the first place? Have your motivations changed?”

I recently received a private email from a lovely young person in the UK, originally of African decent, who found themselves in an eight year law program, staying awake all night, depressed, surfing the net, struggling with their faith, and their calling to act, and looking for inspiration. They came across one of my posts on “Being a Christian in The Acting Game, Part 2”, and wrote me a long, emotional email. They wondered if they should give it all up, and just go out and act. They felt called to act, felt it was who they really were on the inside. You can read my response after that post. I will not go into that correspondence any more here, but I did want to address this issue, from one experienced “dark nighter” to others who may also be up, all night, surfing the web, looking for answers.

Having “dark nights of the soul” is part of being alive. It does not mean you are crazy, or insane, or bipolar, or even, suicidal. Although, if you do suspect as much, I highly recommend getting on some anti-depressants, and going to therapy. That being said, lying awake in bed, night after night, wondering how to make sense of it all, is just a normal part of being alive, and also, an important part of being an artist!

Getting bored, getting sleepless, being restless, feeling unfulfilled, is your soul telling you it’s time for either a change, or time for some much needed reflection, and inspiration. It’s your heart telling you that you need to do more. And sometimes, it’s just your body telling you that you need to rest. Sometimes, we can try TOO hard.

Whenever I get this way, and believe me, I get this way about four times a year, and often, for mini “dark nights” once a month – I try different things. First, I try to get out of bed. Staying in bed only makes it worse. Then I tell myself, “One Day At A Time!” Only for me, during most of these times, it’s more like, “One Minute At A Time!” I tell myself just to do one thing, for example: go take a shower. I tell myself to just take a shower, and nothing else. I give myself permission to NOT figure it all out, to just bathe. If I can get through that, I’ve done something. And that will always feel better than staying in bed moping.

Next I tell myself to eat. Now I’m clean, and I’ve eaten. If I can just do those two things, then I can get down to what’s really bugging me. If I’ve gotten that far, which I usually do, then I make myself sit down at my computer and write. I tell myself to just write off the top of my head, and write down all my longings and dreams for my life, and pray for guidance and relief. I just write and write and write till I’m so sick of writing I bore myself to death! Finding some humor in my own misery helps me begin to heal, and when I start to bore myself, I always laugh. Boredom can be a good thing, because it means I’m no longer taking myself so seriously. And laughing is always a good sign.

Then, if it’s light out, I make myself go for a walk – even if it’s the last thing on earth I want to do and I want to throw up just thinking about even leaving the house. I tell myself to just go and walk around the block. Just walking around the block can be hard when you’re feeling like this. You may look at everyone else and think they are idiots, or more happy then you’ll ever be, or you may see a few things that take you out of your own self-focused brain, like a funny little bird in a tree, or an old lady struggling to pull her grocery cart home from the market. These little moments make us feel like we’re not the only ones with troubles, and empathy can really help when you’re feeling like the most pathetic person on earth. (Volunteering for some charities will also help!)

Then, if I don’t have to be at work that day, I go back home, and make myself wash the dishes. I tell myself that I can’t figure out my entire life this one single day, and all I have to do is wash my dishes, and then I can go back to bed. It’s amazing how having a (sort of) clean kitchen can make me feel better. I’ve learned that cleaning up the piles of crap all over my place can suddenly open up space in my brain to be more creative, and get back into doing what I really love – which is to write and think -- and maybe even, be happy!

Hope this helps, and keep acting, and loving yourself more!

About Kirsten Tretbar

Kirsten Tretbar is an acting teacher, filmmaker, and former actress. She received her MFA in Acting from USC in Los Angeles, where she acted professionally for many years.

Los Angeles + Kansas City