Blessed With a Dark Turn of Mind
Some girls are bright as the morning
Some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind--Gillian Welch
Some boys, too. As far back as I can remember I've been troubled by an inability to get very dark things out of my mind, or to keep them from getting in there in the first place. Even if I have some warning that something I'm about to see is going to include horror--a story about a gruesome crime, for instance--something in me is inclined to press on, not because of an attraction but precisely because of fear and repulsion, something that perversely and stupidly wants to find out just how bad it can be, as if knowing the worst will somehow arm me against it. And then, if it's really bad, I'm stuck with it, perhaps for a long time.
The first specific instance of this I can recall was when I was, I suppose, six or seven years old--old enough to read, at any rate. Somehow I came across a horror comic. It frightened me, yet I couldn't resist reading it. It may well have been an issue of Tales from the Crypt. I don't recognize any of the synopses in the Wikipedia entry, although "Terror Ride!" bears a resemblance. If it wasn't Tales from the Crypt, it was something similar; the sample illustration at Wikipedia is just the sort of thing I remember. There were several stories in it, all terrifying to me, but worst of all was the one that I think was last in the book. It involved an amusement park ride in which patrons rode little boats through a series of frightening scenes, including, for instance, a huge hideous figure with an axe poised to strike down at them. Except that there was a monstrous demented old man running the thing, and he had rigged the axe so that it actually fell....
This little book sent me into something close to a blind panic. It was as if I had been swallowed by some great invisible fear-beast; I could still see the world around me, but it was remote and unreal. The only real thing was my terror, and the images from the comic that would not go away. I don't now how long I remained in this state. At the time it seemed a very long time, weeks or months, but perhaps it was only days. I never told anyone what was going on, and eventually it faded away. (As an adult in my mid-twenties I had an experience similar to that provoked by the comic, except that it wasn't provoked by any one thing, but by an accumulation of several things. It's a story for another time, but I think it was what has now come to be called a panic attack.)
Years ago I saw a Gahan Wilson cartoon that made me laugh in recognition--if you don't remember him, he specialized in creating very dark humor out of macabre situations. This one pictured a little boy walking down the sidewalk. As I recall he is bundled into a big coat, with only part of his head sticking out, and he looks somewhat fearful. Two women observe him, and one says "There goes that little Wilson boy, all alone as usual." But images of monsters and other nightmarish things are swirling all around him, visible only to him. I had to laugh; that might have been me as a child, not always but too often.
The thing that has continued to plague me from time to time is something that I suppose happens to most people. You read about some horrible thing--it may be a news story about the atrocities committed in war, or by a despot, it may be an account of torture, it may even be something from the life of a saint. And it hits you like a blow to the gut. You're dazed and sick with horror and pity and you want to cry out. You can't believe that one human being could do such demonic things to another, you want to know why God allows it, and you get no answer. For a few minutes your mind flails about desperately, trying to escape what has just taken possession of it, wanting to be rid of the hideous knowledge, wanting to somehow undo or ameliorate the pain and terror of the person who suffered what you just read about, but helpless.
Then you get control, you go on about your business, and the horror fades. Only, if you're like me, it keeps coming back, and your mind ties itself in knots trying to keep it away--everyone knows the phenomenon in which the effort not to think about something only insures that one will think about it. I have fairly frequent bouts of insomnia, and it's often during these, as I lie awake in the dark, that images of horror come back to torment me. Sometimes I can only escape them by getting up and turning on a light and reading or listening to music for a while.
But I've recently learned a different way of dealing with this. Like any Catholic, I'm familiar with the idea of offering any pain or suffering of my own to God as a sacrifice for others. But only somewhat recently have I begun to think of these bouts of morbid obsession in that light. I think it was Caryll Houselander who made this really clear to me, in passages like this one that I quoted a week or two ago:
"...your suffering, bitter though it is, is healing the world's sorrow. Don't think of it in terms of what is unbearable to you, but when a specially bad hour ends, even in sheer weariness, think, 'That is a drink of water to someone dying of thirst,' or, 'That is a bar of chocolate for a hungry child.' It is mysterious, but true."
Could it be possible that by accepting the anguish that sometimes visits me and offering it to God on behalf of the victims of torture and atrocities of all sorts that I could be helping them somehow--giving them a hint of comfort, helping them to endure or recover...something? With that hope, the entire picture changes, as if a negative image had suddenly become positive, and what was dark is now light. My pain now has a purpose, and therefore is easier to bear. Now, if gruesome images come to torment me in the dark--well, I won't say I welcome them, because they are still a torment, but I welcome the opportunity to make use of them. I am at peace. I don't fight them or try to escape them, but rather let them come and face them, fear and horror dispelled by the hope that this is actually of some effect in relieving the pain of the actual sufferer. I offer not only whatever is bothering me at that moment but all the similar fears that have beset me from childhood on. The idea that I might actually be helping some poor soul to survive unspeakable agony is to me a joy that is also unspeakable. Send me as much of this as I can bear, Lord, I find myself praying, if it can help that tortured child that I read about this morning.
If it can really help--and you'll notice I say if, because I'm always struggling to believe--then I can truly say that my dark turn of mind is a blessing.
The translation of the Psalms that we use in our Anglican Use liturgy seem to be based on the Coverdale translation. I'm sure others are more accurate, but since the psalms are poetry, I think multiple meanings are permissible. Last week we had Psalm 84, and it seemed to speak directly to me, as of course scripture so often does:
Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are thy ways, who going through the vale of misery use it for a well; and the pools are filled with water.