Sometimes you have to go to hell. Oh, I’m not talking about religion here. In fact, I don’t use the word “hell” very often to describe some afterlife place of deliberate torment as just punishment for not belonging to the right religion. No; when I say you sometimes have to go to hell, I mean a very immediate, very real, “here and now” experience.
You don’t have to die to go to hell. Though going there will feel like dying.
Hell paralyzes normal thinking and feeling. Sleeping and eating become less necessary. It is dark and empty down there. In hell, some people cry and wail and clutch carpet. Others sit, dazed, in unlit rooms for minutes or hours on end. Not much use for words in hell. But, if you’ve ever been there, you know. You remember.
You cannot take any prior learning, wisdom or life experience into hell with you. You can’t even take what you learned the last time you were there. If you could, it wouldn’t be hell. We go to hell with nothing. We go to hell to be nothing, for a necessary while, because hell burns down the identity in which we have heretofore reveled in supreme confidence.
A variety of circumstance and happenstance can summon us to hell. But the different occasions have in common a grief beyond knowing. Beyond words. A loss beyond measuring. Someone dies. Someone betrays you. The one and only love of your life … leaves. Maybe you have a random, capricious, could-have-happened-to-anybody accident that leaves someone dead. Disfigured. Permanently disabled. Or maybe you are confronted with the consequences and humiliation of your own egregious dereliction. Grave moral failure. You burn down your life, reputation and important relationships in an act of wanton, desperate stupidity and selfishness.
Hell is the place we go to face eviscerating, sledgehammer loss. Loss that changes you. Forever you’ll be different.
When life demands our descent into hell, we have two choices. We can go. Or we can refuse to go, at least for a while. Sometimes for a long while. But woe to the person who puts off this journey. Because every strategy for putting off this journey leads to … hell. But it’s a different hell than the life changing (if terrifying) descent described above. The hell we enter by putting off hell is “mere suffering,” as opposed to a meaningful suffering. It is a pathos. An absurdity, as opposed to a redemption.
Alcoholism, for example, can be seen as a strategy for putting off hell. I’ll never forget my friend who, 20 years sober, said, “There should be a sign on the door of AA meetings that says ‘Sobriety is Hell.’ Because the first thing that happens to drunks who stop drinking is … it gets worse. And then it gets better.”
There are treasures in hell. My spiritual director spoke of two treasures, specifically: “In hell you will meet your True Self, Steven … and you will meet God as you have never known him before.”
No one can accompany you to hell. If someone could go with you, it wouldn’t be hell. Friends, family, beloved mates – these people can walk you to the entrance of hell. They can wait for you on the rim of hell. But hell, by definition, is a place we go alone.
Twice in my life I’ve been to hell. It changes everything. Both times the experience made for more of me. That is, my True Self. I had more depth. More humility. I learned more about love and gratitude.
But that’s not to say the journey is without cost. One of the costs, of course, is the way the journey changes the names and faces in your innermost trusted circles. When you come out of hell, there will be people standing there with you and for you whom you never would have imagined would still be standing there. And, likewise there will be people not standing there any longer whom you would have bet your life would still be standing there. The former will surprise and delight you. The latter will break your heart. Those relationships will never be the same. And you’ll never understand either list. It will always be a mystery.
I’m saying there’s nothing like going to hell for showing you what friends, family and soul mates are made of. Hell sifts through the pretenders.
Who, in your life, was still standing there when you came out the other side of hell?
(Steven Kalas is an author, therapist and Episcopal priest. You may reach him at email@example.com.)