Elizabeth Gilbert on Ruin, the ‘bleak shroud of despair’ & actualizing

Really interesting piece from Elizabeth Gilbert, drawing on her own experiences, about the potential for (painful) transformation through loss and destruction. You can read the whole piece on her Facebook page by clicking on the title.

Elizabeth is talking about:

‘…..the ruin that happens to you, without you ever seeing it coming. The chaos that sneaks up on you.

Because sometimes the bottom falls out of our lives. People leave us. Precious certainties are yanked away. We lose our health, our money, our gifts, our faith, our familiar surroundings, our trust. All the truths that we thought we could believe in forever suddenly depart us with no warning. The ground that we always knew was solid under our feet turns out to have been nothing but a trap door all along. (And then there’s another trap door under that one.) We disappoint ourselves. We are disappointed by others. We get dead lost. We are no longer longer recognizable to ourselves when we look in the mirror. It all falls to ruin.’

Elizabeth interestingly puts this in the context of Joseph Campbell, and the heroic archetype/monomyth, or rites of passage. She suggests that for anyone who finds themselves in this place, there is – along with an infinity of pain and loss – the potential for transformational change, growth and realization. In person-centred terms, ruin can be a gateway into a fuller actualizing than that person might ever otherwise have experienced:

‘This is the chapter of life that Joseph Campbell called “The Dark Night of the Soul” — and it’s a necessary step in every hero’s journey. It’s also the hardest thing in the world. Nobody ever chooses to stand in this place; it just happens to you. And you will often see later that it needed to happen to you, if you were to ever become more than a mere passenger on Earth. Because this dark place is where you must decide whether to die or live. You cannot go back to what you knew, because what you knew is a pile of smoking rubble. You cannot stay where you are, because where you are is a bleak shroud of despair. You can only move forward into the absolute unknown. And the only way to move forward is to change.’

Elizabeth acknowledges the appalling pain of this place, and – something I suspect many therapists will recognize from their client work, and indeed their own process work – that we do not engage readily and seldom engage voluntarily with change at this level. We tend to do it when we no longer have any other choice besides death (and we may choose death – ‘As Sartre said: “Exits are everywhere.”‘):

‘Nobody wants to do it — not real change, not soul change, not the painful molecular change required to truly become who you need to be. Nobody ever does real transformation for fun. Nobody ever does it on a dare. You do it only when your back is so far against the wall that you have no choice anymore.’

Elizabeth places in this context her friend, Rayya Elias’, account of her ascent from her heroin pit, which Rayya believes became possible only when everything fell away. As Elizabeth describes it:

‘It was only then, at the loneliest bottom of her existence, that she could finally hear the question that echoes at us constantly through the universe: “Is this really how you want to live?”

Her answer, to her own surprise, was “No.” And when that answer, loud and clear, becomes NO…that’s where our transformation always begins.’

Elizabeth makes the point – again, I suspect this will sound familiar to many therapists – that transformation is not a straightforward linear progression, and is itself messy and painful. I like her bird metaphor:

‘The changes in your life from that point forward will not be immediate and crisp. They never will be. Transformation isn’t easy. It isn’t pretty. (Ever watch a bird hatch? It’s fucking exhausting.) You don’t ascend from that lowest place of your life in a tidy straight line, moving a few inches upward every day. No, it’s a messy and jerky and unpredictable trajectory. But it is a trajectory.’

And ultimately, we each stand to gain ourselves – our fuller selves, the person we always had it in us to become, and which no-one else in all of time can ever be:

‘You will shed whatever (and whomever) you need to shed. You will find whatever (and whomever) you need to find. You will crawl and bawl. Until eventually you are standing, finally, on your own two feet in your own shower of light. Until you are the person you never would have been, had you never met your own worst darkness face-to-face.’

This is not, of course, everyone’s journey. But the potential contained within it is a remarkable one.

‘And that is the gift that ruin offers us.’    

The phoenix egg in the fire.

Lindsey Talbott, Therapist

Palace Gate Counselling Service





Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.”


This entry was posted in actualizing tendency, Carl Rogers, Elizabeth Gilbert, grief, human condition, person centred, sadness & pain, therapeutic growth, transformation and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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