The feeling that it will never end
One of the primary characteristics of any “passage through the wilderness” is the excruciating belief/certainty, while we’re in it, that it will never end. We have been given a life sentence, we believe, without possibility of parole.
Are we addicted to alcohol or drugs? We can’t conceive of ever being able to stop. Are we in bondage to some toxic, soul-devouring relationship, profession, or conception of life? We believe we have no power to escape. PTSD? Anxiety? Compulsive self-sabotage? We’re powerless to break free, we believe.
We’re in denial when we’re in the wilderness. At least that’s how we respond when someone calls us on our bullshit. “I’m fine, man.” “I’m all right.” “Worry about yourself, brother!”
How dangerous is our Wilderness Passage? It’s life-and-death dangerous. In the movies, heroes “make it out alive.” In real life, you can go down and never come back up. How many casualties can each of us count among friends and family? Remember Hemingway’s famous quote from A Farewell to Arms:
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
I’m not a believer that just because Ernest Hemingway said something, it’s necessarily true. But he certainly was onto something in this case, at least in the sense of how this passage feels.
The feeling that this agony, this exile will never end, excruciating as it is, is critical in a good sense because it reinforces for us the fact that the stakes are life and death. Which they are. There’s no guarantee that you or I—or anybody—will survive their ordeal in the Wilderness.
And yet people do survive. If you thought it was only a “passage,” while you were in it, it wouldn’t scare the crap out of you like it’s supposed to. In order for our ordeal to do its work, we have to believe completely (and we do, because it’s true) that our soul is in mortal danger and we must rally every resource to survive.