Facing the Unimaginable by Hilary Buckwalter Kesti

Have you ever had to face a situation that was intensely difficult? One that tested the bounds of your human limitations? Sometimes events that are beyond our control can turn our lives upside down--wreaking havoc on our relationships, our professional lives, and at times, even thwarting our ability to care for ourselves.

I’m speaking of the Hero’s Journey, but not the nice kind. I’m speaking of deep grief, loss, terror, fear, and disbelief--not the Hero’s Journey where you leisurely find yourself at a crossroads, hear the call to adventure, and make a conscious choice to say yes to the unknown, or say no and slide back into the comfort of the known world. I’m talking about the other kind of Hero’s Journey. The one where you are summarily grabbed from behind in a sleeper hold by the Fates and then thrown against your will into a dark pit of steaming vipers, landing at the bottom, alone, with your femur bone sticking out of your thigh. This is the Hero’s Journey where you face the unimaginable. This is the descent into the Underworld.

This type of Underworld/Hero’s Journey contains the kind of unimaginable events that demolish the boundaries between sanity and complete disaster. This kind of Hero’s Journey can feel as if the Universe herself has been violently mugged, her purse carelessly and sloppily tossed for loose change. This is the kind of journey that breaks us into a million scattered pieces and makes us feel like we may never know wholeness or safety again. The kind that shakes our spiritual foundations, unravels our personal practice, and dumps out our well-organized toolboxes with a resounding thud. This is the Upside Down, where truth is inverted, nothing makes sense, and clarity has become a distant stranger.

Like many others, I’ve experienced much trauma and loss in my life. At times it has been unrelenting and seemed insurmountable. At times suffocating under my own mucous and tears, I’ve wished for death. I know many of you who are reading this can relate.  And yet, here is the great paradox of this kind of journey—we live. Our heart keeps beating, our lungs keep breathing, and the Earth continues to revolve around the sun. Despite the pain and suffering, even when it feels like we might die, we live.

So, what do we do with this kind of journey? How do we navigate the terrible terrain of terror and helplessness? Unfortunately, as a society, we don’t really make room or hold space for these kinds of deep dark journeys, and to our own detriment. We are a culture obsessed with looking towards the light. We want only the “good,” and we run like hell from the “bad.” We think of bad things as something that happen to other people. We think that if we are good enough, we will somehow be saved from the misery and suffering (although if you get into a deep conversation with just about anyone, you’ll quickly discover that everyone suffers, and that most people have a story hiding beneath the surface that will break your heart).

Collectively, we have also lost access to the ancient stories and mythologies that act as containers for these abyss-like spaces. We no longer pass on the mythic tale of the Hero’s Journey, or Persephone’s Underworld tale around campfires or at temples dedicated to such phenomenon. We no longer have rituals, circles, or narratives that support our internal experience of the dark side of living this human life. In today’s modern world, many of us inadvertently embark on these sometimes scary and upsetting journeys largely on our own, without any kind of road map to assist us, making it very easy for us to get lost in our depression, anxiety, PTSD, __________________ (insert favorite malady here).

We need ritual containers, shared stories to help us hold the Underworld journey, and to help us make sense of it. We need places and spaces where these journeys are honored, where fear, grief, terror, and despair have a place at the table, where we aren’t constantly told to find the silver lining. Places and spaces where we are supported in feeling our deep grief, hopelessness, and sadness.

We need friends, teachers, and mentors that are willing to be our guides into the depths. Those that are willing to model that it is OKAY to feel, to cry, to scream when something hurts so bad that it rips us apart. We need to see and hear from those who have gone on the journey before us to normalize and validate our experiences. We need the wisdom of these survivors, and when we are ready, we need to become them ourselves, if we can.

Acknowledging the potential and the redemption inherent in the often difficult Underworld journeys we take in this life can have a profound effect. Calling the journey what it is and having the fortitude to accept the descent can be liberating. Feeling what needs to be felt, rather than wishing it away, or wanting something different is the task required. Standing resolutely, facing what needs to be faced, even when it seems unimaginable is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we take our power back. Incubating in the dark is where we grow, learn, and allow the depths to do their work on us so that we may return to the known world, gifts in hand.

Have you experienced a deep, dark Underworld journey? What happened? What did you learn? 

“They were wrong about the sun.
It does not go down into
the underworld at night.
The sun leaves merely
and the underworld emerges.
It can happen at any moment.

It can happen in the morning,
you in the kitchen going through
your mild routines.
Plate, cup, knife.
All at once there’s no blue, no green,
no warning.” -Margaret Atwood, Morning in the Burned House