A modern parable from an episode of the television show The West Wing recently spoke to me. Here’s the tale:
As he walked down a street, a man fell into a hole. The walls of the hole were so steep he couldn’t climb out. So, the man cried for help.
Soon a doctor walked by and heard the man’s cries. The doctor wrote a prescription, tossed it down the hole, and walked away.
Before long, a priest walked by and heard the man. “Father, can you help me?” the man begged. The priest wrote a prayer, threw it in the hole, and walked away.
Finally, a friend came along. “Can you help me?” the man called. The friend made a brave, bold move: he jumped into the hole. The man who had been trapped was aghast. “Why’d you do that? Now we’re both stuck here!” The friend said, “Yes, but I know the way out because I’ve been down here before.”
This story struck a chord in me as I struggled with a family conflict that triggered an old wound—one that dates to the loss of my father when I was sixteen. I thought the wound had been healed through counseling and spiritual direction. But sometimes it still rears its ugly head. When it does, I know God has a life-lesson recipe he wants me to savor.
The West Wing parable applies to all of us. We often fall into holes. It could be a struggle with a loved one, a divorce, feeling lost when we lose a job, or simply a wave of the blues. Whatever it might be, when we fall, we need to find a way out of those pits too deep to climb out on our own.
We have to make a choice. Here are our options:
We can stay trapped in the pit.
We can insist we have all the answers, and if everyone would just hear us and do what we want, life would get better.
We can pull others into our bottomless pit and have a pity party focusing upon how the pit’s too deep and muddy as we point fingers at everyone walking above us on the sidewalk, claiming they’re the source of our trouble.
Eventually, our pity-party turns into a “this sucks hangover” that doesn’t solve the problem of the hole, which now appears even deeper. The walls close in on us and the mud of despair, anxiety, and our inability to control the world become quicksand.
Self-medicate with Pleasure.
We can try to escape the pain of being stuck in a dark hole by medicating ourselves with drugs, alcohol, or whatever pleasure numbs us. But, that doesn’t help us learn how to get out of the pit. It only leads to selfishness and trying to get more of whatever we think we need to blot out our suffering.
Grab a Crutch.
We can use religion as an excuse, expecting God to send his angels into the pit and lift us out if we say enough of the right prayers. But, while prayer and religion are good, we forget we have to do our part to discover and take the action steps needed for inner growth and healing.
Look for Someone’s Who’s Been There.
In The West Wing parable, what finally led to the man’s ability to climb out was his willingness to accept the wisdom of the friend who’d previously been in the pit. The man had to let the friend share the darkness of the hole with him so together they could find their way out.
This is what Jesus did in the dark nights of his soul. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he went to the Father seeking strength, and God sent him what might have been an angel or maybe a gardener to talk with Jesus. That experience of reaching out to the Father allowed Jesus to find the way out of his despair, gather the power of love to walk the road to Calvary, and find true Resurrection.
After my father’s death, I looked for a note, a card, a symbol—anything—he might have left me during his six months of suffering to let me know who he was and what he thought of me. I wanted my father’s blessing. I longed for someone to father me. But there was no note or symbol. No one showed up as a substitute father.
One day my wife told me to stop looking outside of myself. “What you’re looking for is inside of you,” she said. “It’s your faith in God, the presence of the Holy Spirit who lives in your heart. All you need to do is believe God is your Father and he is as real as every heartbeat in you. He’s in the morning quiet time you spend with Poppa listening in the silence of your heart for his whisper. And you know you hear his voice. You’ve told me how he speaks to you. You write his words of wisdom into your God Conversation Notes on your iPhone. And some of Poppa’s words spill onto the pages of what you write and share with others.”
The next morning during my Quiet Time, I imagined I was in that dark hole again filled with doubt, guilt, and shame—all the stuff that traps me. Christ, clothed in dazzling white, was in the hole with me. He asked if I wanted to get out of the pit. I thought for a moment, and answered, “Yes.”
“Let’s go,” he whispered. “Take my hand.” And then a ladder appeared. I took Christ’s hand, and together we climbed each rung until I was free.
Each of us have to make a choice when we fall into life’s dark holes. Do we want to stay stuck or do we want to get out? Can we trust what we cannot touch with our hands or smell with our nose or see with our eyes?
Our heart knows God is real. We have been gifted with the Inner Presence of Divine Love and Wisdom. All we need to do is listen to the Whisper of the Holy Spirit and take the hand of Christ.
God is the ladder out of the holes we fall into. Even Jesus experienced those dark holes during his earthly life, and he turned to his Father to get out.
Jesus knows the way out. He’s been there before.
Take his hand.
—brian j plachta
PS—Here’s a poem a friend sent me when I was in one of those dark holes.
Give Me Your Hand
God speaks to each of us as we are made,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and horror.
Just keep going.
No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
—Rainer Maria Rilke