Henri Nouwen, the priest and academic, wrote candidly about one of the most emotionally painful periods in his life.
It began in the winter of 1987, shortly after he joined L’Arche Daybreak, a community of men and women with mental disabilities.
Nouwen had taught at some of the most prestigious universities in the world, and became one of the most respected spiritual writers of his day.
But as an academic he never felt as if he were “fully at home,” according to the foreword of his book The Inner Voice of Love.
Nouwen came to think of L’Arche as his “true home,” a place where he was accepted and given all the attention and affection he could hope for.
He let his guard down and opened his heart more fully.
Nouwen became especially close to one friend, and he allowed himself be loved and cared for with a level of trust and confidence he had never experienced before.
“It brought immense joy and peace,” he wrote.
“It seemed as if a door of my interior life had been opened, a door that had remained locked during my youth and most of my adult life.”
Then the friendship was interrupted, and Nouwen fell apart.
He felt abandoned, rejected and betrayed. His anguish matched the level of joy he had previously enjoyed.
“Indeed,” he wrote, “the extremes touched each other.”
It took six months of counselling and spiritual care to arrive at a point where he could return to L’Arche, and eventually the friendship was restored.
During that time of healing, Nouwen was surprised to find that he never lost the ability to write.
“In fact, writing became part of my struggle for survival,” he wrote.
“It gave me the little distance from myself that I needed to keep from drowning in my despair.”
On most days, after meeting with two “guides” who helped him through this difficult time, he wrote a command to himself that had emerged from their session.
“These imperatives were directed to my own heart. They were not meant for anyone but myself.”
A friend and publisher at Doubleday felt these writings could help others, but Nouwen said he was too close to it.
He started working on another book, a remarkable and moving volume called The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Eight years later, Nouwen re-read the journal he kept during that time of anguish and, at the urging of several other friends, decided to publish it.
That book, The Inner Voice of Love, is a key part of Nouwen’s prodigious body of work.
His journey through intense emotional pain has been a consolation to others with broken hearts and broken lives, including me.
In hindsight, Nouwen could see that this period was a time of “intense purification that had led … gradually to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.”
His friends believed his journal revealed that light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear, are never far from one another.
They also believed, according to Nouwen, “that spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle.”
All of this to say, you never know what value others will find in the words you put down, even when you feel like trash and can barely pull yourself out of bed.
You don’t know how your words will help them, or hurt them, or pull them forward.
Keep writing, anyway.
Write out of love, of course. Don’t write to settle scores.
Be careful with your words, and do everything you can to avoid hurting people.
But keep writing.
Do it for yourself, and decide later (even several years later) if you want to share your thoughts with anyone else.
It’s not overly dramatic to say that writing may save your life.
It’s not arrogant or smug to think it may save someone else’s.