Barbara Brown Taylor: Life After Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor
Barbara Brown Taylor is a New York Times best-selling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church (2006), won an Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. Her last book, Learning to Walk in the Dark (2014), was featured on the cover of TIME magazine. She has served on the faculties of Piedmont College, Columbia Theological Seminary, Candler School of Theology at Emory University, McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University, and the Certificate in Theological Studies program at Arrendale State Prison for Women in Alto, Georgia.
A Presbyterian-Minister-Turned-Caver led Barbara through the Organ Cave Complex in West Virginia.
To pre-order your copy of Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor, click here. Her book releases on March 12, 2019.
Barbara discusses her time as a hospital chaplain. To learn more about Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), click here.
The voicemail clips you heard at the end were from actual listeners. We received so many of your heartbreaking and beautiful stories. Thank you. A special thanks to Susan, Ann, Jerry, and Nikki for sharing your voices with us on this episode. We’d love to hear from you. To lend your voice to a future episode, leave us a voicemail: (978) 842-1817.
Kate Bowler: Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. I began this podcast so I didn’t have to feel alone anymore. How selfish is that? I had just been diagnosed with stage four cancer, I felt like I was going to suffocate under the weight of everyone’s reasons for why it happened. I needed a way forward, without quite so many clichés. So this is a podcast about when everything comes apart. And my conversations with friends and strangers along the way, who understood what it was like to fumble around and find a way forward.
I have a friend who has thought a lot about fumbling around in the dark, and I realized that she would be the perfect person to ask about some of these questions. Her name is Barbara Brown Taylor. She’s someone you might have seen on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. She is a teacher, an Episcopal priest, and a New York Times Bestselling author.
Her book, Learning To Walk In The Dark, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, and I understand why. Barbara has a way of filling you with courage, as she explores darkness as both a metaphor and a reality for the things that scare us, and I’m excited to be talking with her today about what she’s discovered about walking in the dark. Barbara, it is so amazing to have in front of me, in front of these eyes right now.
Barbara Brown Taylor: Thank you, Kate. I’m so glad to be here.
KB: So I loved you before, but after getting a chance to really dig in to Learning To Walk In The Dark, I am certain that I love you more. As you know, I’ve walked in the dark, and I think this is why so many of the stories you wrote really resonated so powerfully with me. You, I think we should probably start by saying you live in the dark on purpose. You left the city, you moved to the country, you are not even Mennonite, and you chose this way of life.
BBT: That’s true. I did.
KB: I would love then to start with what should we think of when we talk about darkness? So what do you mean by darkness in this book?
BBT: I’m going to tell you what I mean by darkness, but I’m going to remind you that word is sticky, and it picks up the lint of everybody’s life, in a different way. What I mean, when I use the word darkness, still, is any place, any situation in which I can’t see where I’m going. Spiritually, physically, emotionally, vocationally can’t see where I’m going. And none of my regular tools are much help because I can’t see the compass and my landmarks are not visible.
So I have to rely on senses, including intuition, and friendship, and a lot of things I don’t use as much in the light because I feel capable and speedy in the light. But darkness slows me down and disarms me in ways that are simultaneously terrifying, primarily terrifying. And if I can take a breath, may also have treasures for me that my speedy daylight life doesn’t have.
KB: So I really like the way you pick-up on all the problems with that metaphor. Blindness as bad, blackness as bad. You don’t want darkness to be a foil. In the first few pages of your book, you say something really counter-intuitive. You say, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light. Things that have saved my life, over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” That is such a weird thing to say because as you argue in the book, we’re inundated with these New York Times Bestsellers about how to avoid the darkness. Everybody just wants to stand in the sun.
BBT: Of course.
KB: Tell me about why we should not just be craving what you think of as super sunny faith?
BBT: The main reason is because it’s half a life, right? At the physical level, it’s half a life. It means I only want certain seasons of the year, and I only want certain hours of the day. And I can want that all I want, but that’s not the way it’s going to turn out. So the main reason for me to challenge the kind of full solar spirituality you’re talking about is because it’s half a life, and that is an unrealistic and impossible way to live.
So if I learn anything from the rhythms of the natural world, and the rhythms of my own life, I learn that darkness is part of every life. And that there’s no way to defend myself against it, but there are ways of turning toward, or turning away, learning to stay in the presence a little longer, being curious about what there may be for me when I lose my illusions of omnipotence and control and the cheerfulness and sunniness.
KB: No, you can’t take that away from me.
BBT: You can’t. You can’t.
KB: You can’t take performative cheerfulness away from me. Otherwise I’ll have to manage my term.
BBT: There you go. You just put your finger on it.
KB: Well, I love that term, full solar spirituality. It reminds me so much of things I noticed in the prosperity gospel. So the idea that God rewards the faithful with health and wealth and happiness, but then what happens when, as you say, darkness falls on your life? So you lose your job, or somebody leaves you, or things come apart. It’s really hard not to see darkness, in your life, as a kind of indictment.
BBT: You’re sitting here with me with a lot hours spent in that cockpit than I, but I’m practicing. I’m probably twice your age, or getting there, and in some ways Learning To Walk In The Dark was a book about practicing walking further into scary places than I had any reason to go because I thought if I could learn to go there sometimes, under good conditions voluntarily, maybe it would improve my chances later of going into those dark places with a little more grace or trust or something. But that is, perhaps, one more illusion of control, I don’t know.
KB: Well, then you give us an alternative. You talk about the moon. The moon and the way, I mean you talk about it almost like someone would talk about a friend, or a boyfriend they still miss. Tell me about how your faith has been shaped by the moon instead of the sun.
BBT: I had to move to the country to make better friends with the moon. I love the city for different reasons, but there were too many things in the way. Everything from light pollution to trees to buildings. It was a very human scale for me in the city. And when my husband and I made the decision to move to the country, it was partly because we didn’t know what phase the moon was in. On our little one-mile walk around our urban neighborhood, when we saw robins, we didn’t know if they were early or late, we sort of forgot whether it was spring or fall, or where the moon was. So we moved.
And then I built a house with a front porch that looks out on 180 degrees of sky. The human scale lifted up so high that sun and moon and stars were available to me every single day. And moon. You say boyfriend, almost mother, almost something else. Very, very feminine, not only in the waxing and the waning, but in the beauty of the light. Even those three days of every month when the moon is gone. Gone to me, not gone. That’s when I fell in love.
KB: In your book, you talk about how children are protected by their parents, from the dark, and you saw this one time when you had a little visitor at your farm. Tell me what happened.
BBT: City dwellers are going to have to really hang in with me here, but if you live in the country and you have chickens, and they are in one pen and need to be moved to another pen, the only time you can do that is at night. It’s like they’ve all had martinis, and they’re all sleeping on their perches. And you can come into their house and move them. And it may be an odd characteristic, but this is one of my favorite things to do, is move chickens in the dark.
So it was the best thing I could think of to do with this young person who came to my house, a little girl, but she was a city dweller. And I said, “We are going to go do the best thing. You’re not going to believe how much fun this is.” And I headed off to the chicken house, but the minute we turned the corner at the garage, we were in country darkness.
And I wanted her to see the way that you could see glow worms and sometimes you could see the eyes of spiders in the grass. She could not have been less interested, or more terrified. I looked back and she was paralyzed. I mean both feet planted in the air, both hands sort of straight out sort of like she was on a tightrope, and she couldn’t move. She couldn’t move. The dark was so terrifying to her. So I gave her one of the worst memories she ever had, instead of one of the best.
And that’s when it occurred to me that all of her teaching, good, safe, urban teaching about the dangers of darkness, did not serve her in the country at all. They handicapped her terribly. So I learned a ton from that. About default settings for darkness and how important it is for us to revisit those, depending on where we are and who we’re with. And to realize that dark does not equal danger always. It doesn’t even equal lost or insecure, uncertain. Sometimes it equals shooting stars and glow worms and drunk chickens. It can be a wonderful time, but not if we’ve been schooled always to fear what we can’t see.
KB: Yeah. I do love that story where you had a guy take you into a cave.
BBT: A Presbyterian minister. He did this as part of his ministry. Yes, I felt privileged.
KB: So what was the cave again? Tell me the story.
BBT: Oh, it’s in West Virginia, and it’s the Oregon Cave Complex, and he is an explorer from way back. I said, “So you’re a spelunker.” He said, “No, I’m a caver, we rescue spelunkers.” So he was serious about what he did, and when he knew I was working on this book, he invited me to go into what is for some people, I suppose, a very terrifying situation. A wild cave. This is past the red, green, blue lights that spotlight the stalagmites or stalactites or whatever they … After the handrails are gone, he had like a Victorian key to an iron gate.
KB: No. No.
BBT: Yes, that opened between the show cave that anybody could go in to, and the wild cave. And two people died that day. No, just joking. Well, I expected it to be completely unnerving.
BBT: And I think partly because he was there, it was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done. We got so deep in that cave, and he turned off our headlights at several points, and invited us to just sit and be in the dark. And the third time that happened, we were way down as far as we were going to go into the wild cave that day. And it was like being embraced by my dark mother, who took me in her arms, and it was quiet, and nobody was going to sneak up on me, and I just ended up loving it.
So he invited me back to spend the night, but so far I haven’t done that. But he was right, he was right. It was the perfect thing to do because that’s utter darkness. That’s not the darkness illuminated by campfires and shooting stars and beautiful full moons. That was just dark. And I was in no danger, except inside my mind.
KB: Yeah. Was that maybe your strongest lesson in practicing with boundaries of courage?
BBT: It was certainly a good experiment in testing what I thought would be frightening because very often my fear will stop me way before I even try something out to see how scary it is.
BBT: It seems important to keep doing some frightening things every day, or I won’t work up my courage muscle.
KB: Yeah, yeah. That sounds right to me. I’m incredibly susceptible to peer pressure, so it turns out that when too many people are yelling, I will do it no matter how afraid I am, of heights, for example. So I’ve done more jumping off things than I thought I would do.
BBT: Have you jumped out of an airplane?
BBT: I am never doing that.
KB: I think that’s a hard no for me. I know a lot of people who experienced trauma, and then that was one of their no thank you.
BBT: No, me either.
KB: Learning to step into the unknown was so important to you, in some of your hardest moments. And you’ve had some recent seasons of loss. If you don’t mind talking about it, what did you learn about darkness in those moments?
BBT: I don’t want to be opaque about this. So what I think you’re referring to are illnesses in my immediate family. Some of them sort of natural parts of life. My mother and my father’s deaths, but more recently my sister’s, which hit early with stage four tongue cancer. So she is my baby sister and I am her power of attorney and carry her medical agency. So I get to be with her a lot, and there’s a definition of darkness for you, hers and mine. The person in the bed, the person by the bed, I think are seized in different ways by the unknown-ness of what’s going on.
But this one I don’t have a lot of retrospect on yet, so that’s actually a good question because I’m in the middle of it. And she in the middle of it, much more than I, but it’s quite something. I am a person who wants to love by fixing things. I want to love people by doing practical things to make things better for them.
And what I have learned with her, what she’s taught me, is there’s also a love that’s called only to witness. Only to witness, to bear faithful witness to what someone is going through, with no possibility really of fixing very much. And that is a hard love. That is a very difficult love. And this love happens in a whole network of medical care that can make the loving an extra challenges.
KB: Yeah. Yeah. So hospitals. I think we can both agree, they’re horrible. And as you know, I spent a lot of time in them, and I consider myself something of a hospital dweller. When I’m in the blood work room or something for treatment, I always look at all the people with the bracelets and I think like, “These, these are my people.”
KB: I know you did a really long internship in a hospital when you were training to be a pastor. I was wondering, do you think there’s a particular kind of darkness that inhabits a hospital?
BBT: There is. I was a Chaplin for a year, doing a clinical pastoral education thing, and what I remember about that time is that when all hope was gone, the doctor would come out of what was called the family room … I still get chills thinking about the family room. You don’t want anybody telling you to go into the family room. But the doctor would come out with a stethoscope and I would go in with the bible, or the guidepost. And it was such a change of arms because hospitals are setup, I think, to release people to go get better.
And they’re meant to be places of healing, and yet they’re also places where you can’t sleep and it’s all about your charts and your levels and your blood tests. And it’s hard to find the human dimension in there. When you do, it’s like the gold standard, but it’s not always easy.
KB: I think that in hospitals, that’s where I learned to be afraid of the dark, like really afraid. I guess because time doesn’t have the same quality to it. Partly because people wake you up at 4:00 AM when they begin rounds.
KB: But you’re usually by yourself then, or if you’re with someone, that person is sleeping. And so you tend to get the worst moments in the middle of the darkness, which becomes suddenly bright artificial light as the doctor pops in with the thing you’re supposed to remember six hours later when your parents come in and want to know what the hell is going on. And also the time when my mind is just so off kilter.
So when I got really sick, I started making rules about the darkness. Like no talking about anything sad after 8:00 PM, or before 7:00 AM, because I just found I was dumb and so off balance. And then I just couldn’t trust myself to have reasonable thoughts. So after 8:00 PM, I could watch, I don’t know, Bachelor in Paradise, the reality program.
BBT: I was about to talk about TV miniseries.
KB: Yeah, exactly. That’s the time when you do something just like oatmeal in your life. Something entirely cardboard cutout, because the darkness to me with hospitals is totally associated with fear, unknowing, and total destabilization.
BBT: There’s something about the dark, and it’s positively metaphysical. I don’t know whether it’s because the world kind of closes in because you can’t see. The world becomes smaller, it’s lit by artificial light, but there is a way where everything comes closer.
BBT: And the things I will wake up and absolutely become undone by at 2:00 in the morning, they don’t bother me so much at… What was your rule?
KB: Yeah, yeah, in the morning.
BBT: Until what time in the morning?
KB: 7:00 AM.
BBT: Bother me at 7:30. 7:30 I can begin to entertain them again.
BBT: But there’s something about literal darkness that is a magnate for all the other kinds.
KB: Yeah, that’s so true, and I can’t tell though if 2:00 AM Kate is real Kate, or 2:00 PM Kate is. I mean the other day, it was late, and I broke my own rule and started having sad thoughts. And I kept remembering when I would fly to Atlanta every week, for treatment. And when I would get there, I would get off on one of the first flights that came in, and it was so early that I would see all of the homeless families in the bathroom of the baggage carousel area because people had realized if you have a piece of luggage, no one’s going to throw you out.
And watch people try to put their day faces on and look brave for the world again. And watching moms wash their little kids’ faces in a public bathroom because they didn’t have a place to go, while I was attached to a chemo pack, I thought the world is never going to get … There’s not enough. There’s just like not enough.
And anyway, I just remembered that the other day because I broke my own rule. I feel like I immediately started sobbing, and I figured, “Is this me seeing things as they really are?” Or, I don’t know. Yeah, there’s just some thoughts at night that are just so much more real than you maybe allow yourself to think in the day.
BBT: You’re also talking about, I think, losing all your filters. That there is a way in which some of the assaults on us, I think, destroy our filters. So we begin to see everywhere people who are hurting also, and who are also afraid, who are also wanting, who also don’t have enough of fill-in-the-blank. So I think the 2:00 AM self and the 2:00 PM self are both the true selves, right? It’s just that one’s filters aren’t working so well, and the other one’s got hers up.
KB: Yeah, yeah. And somehow only wants to small talk, and 2:00 AM Kate can never small talk again.
BBT: That’s true. There is no small talk at 2:00 AM, is there?
BBT: There is none.
KB: No. They’re like, “Am I a bad person? Am I doing this right?” And 2:00 PM is like, “All right, I got this 3:00 meeting. Let’s get on with it.” Was there a particular patient or experience that taught you how to embrace the dark?
BBT: I love the verb because it’s about getting your arms around something, right? One of the most awful things that happened during that year was to be called to the pediatric ICU to baptize a baby who had died, and to watch that baby embraced. The verb, embraced, by his parents was remarkable. And for them to allow me to touch him and give him back to them. So it ends up being the embrace part. I think about spooning my sister in the hospital bed, with her little skinny self and my ample self, but it’s the embrace part, somehow. If there’s anything in that hospital 2:00 AM time, it’s the ability to touch and be touched. I am really happy to have flesh.
KB: Yeah, yeah.
BBT: So intellectually embrace, spiritual embrace, I’m not so sure, but physically, to be able to touch and be touched, it can be painful if you’re hurting, but there’s also nothing like it.
KB: That’s so true. All I wanted was to be touched, which is awkward because it was attached to the Divinity School and so all my colleagues were there and I was just holding everybody’s hand. Touching everybody’s head.
BBT: Some had your feet, I’ll betcha.
KB: It’s like, well, now we’re people. Now we’re just people.
BBT: That’s true.
KB: It’s just the weight of people’s hands.
KB: On your head. On your shoulders. Oh man, when you feel like you’re coming apart, like the weight of other people just touching you. It feels like you’re being put back together.
BBT: I love that.
KB: So sometimes the seasons of our lives, of uncertainty, are absolutely terrifying. Like scream into the void, cry your face off, awful. So help me finish this thought. You’re not saying, don’t be afraid of the dark.
BBT: Oh I am not.
KB: You’re saying…
BBT: I don’t know anybody who could obey me if I said that in the first place. No, there’s every reason in the world to be afraid of the dark, and walking that book through the world, I heard from a lot of people who said, “Are you asking me, voluntarily, to go into this terrifying place?” I said, “No, I’m asking you to listen to your smart, intuitive self,” who says, “I want to stay 12 seconds longer than I stayed last time. Then I’m going to run.” I said, “Do that. Run.” I mean if there has ever been a time in your life when one of the darker moments of your life broke open and revealed something that your cheerful 2:00 PM sunny self might have entirely overlooked, then there could be reason to stay and take one more breath.
KB: So what can we learn from other faiths about learning to embrace the dark? In your latest book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, you spend some time thinking about what other faiths offer us.
BBT: I’ve been hugely helped by traditions that viewed dark and light as partners, instead of enemies. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the famous religions of the east, there is a wholeness. You can see it in the yin and yang symbol, where black and white are twined around each other. Almost like twin embryos, with the spot of the other color in each.
Hinduism has got a great tradition of Kali, the dark mother who I think I met in the cave, but she’s not fooling around. She wants to kill anything that’s holding me back. She’s really not a patient mother in terms of me hanging on to illusions and things that will keep me dwarfed, but she is a mother, and I’m drawn to that.
I’m drawn to the Buddha who lost his mother in first week of his life, unwillingly, and who willingly left the palace before he was 30 and is able to talk about suffering as an unavoidable part of the human condition. Whereas in my tradition, sometimes suffering either gets glorified too much, or it becomes something that only means you’re being punished. If you’re suffering, you’re doing something wrong. So yes, I found a lot in the religions of the east that comfort me. My mother tongue’s Christianity, and it always will be, but I’m allowed to overhear these others and take what I can from them.
KB: I’ve learned so much from this. Thanks so much for joining me today.
BBT: I love you, Kate Bowler, I do.
KB: Oh my gosh, I’m obsessed with you. I really am.
When I talk to Barbara, I always feel a little braver. I really appreciated when she sort of nudged me to think about how my 2:00 AM and 2:00 PM self are actually just two halves of a whole, like day and night. So maybe at 2:00 PM, when we’re having coffee and racing around, we need to take a deep breath and remember that we are actually a little delicate. That maybe we have a headache and need an Advil. Or need to reach out and get a bit of love from a friend. Or just sit in your car and crank the seat way back and turn on your favorite song and let it fill you up.
And maybe at 2:00 AM, when we might be wide awake with our racing mind and a frantic beating heart, we need to take a deep breath and remember that we are actually a little brave. That maybe if we feel like nothing will ever be okay, that we remind ourselves that we conquered so many things big and small, to get us to this place. And that we can trust ourselves, and the people who love us, to get us through the next day.
In the light of the moon, we can try what Barbara suggested, and wait. Wait just a little longer. 12 seconds longer than before, in the difficult and dark places. And squint, and wait for the stars to appear. It might take a while for our eyes to adjust, but there they are, blinking back at us. Welcoming us to the other half of our lives.
Susan: My name is Susan, and live in Ohio, and I used to walk around by day portraying myself as a strong, confident professional. Pretending that my brain hadn’t fallen out. By night, I was grief stricken woman, from the deaths of my husband and daughter, only 58 days apart. In short, I didn’t want others to judge me for feeling such deep grief because they thought I should be over it, or I should deal with it.
But now, I don’t care, because here’s my best advice to myself. I loved my husband and daughter longer than they’ve been dead. Grief isn’t something to get over, move through. It’s something you live. So I’m living it, I’m functioning in it, and it makes me a better person not to have to hide.
Speaker 4: In a day, I feel pretty optimistic. My husband has prostate cancer, and we’re waiting to find out how bad it is. I feel mildly optimistic when I make things, like plans for Christmas. And at the very dark night, it’s when the lights are out in bed, and I can’t help think about how close scary things are, and to us right now.
Speaker 5: Day times can get so hectic. I think it’s very important to consciously slow your breathing down, meditate for a few minutes each day, and allow yourself to catch your balance. At nighttime, I would tell myself to have something to write on because some of your best thoughts are produced while your mind and body are resting.
Speaker 6: So in the day, when I’m a little overwhelmed because I work full-time and have grandchildren and children and such, I remind myself that I only have to deal with what is before me today. I don’t need to worry about tomorrow. I only have to worry about getting through what’s on my list, that I need to get done today.
In the night, in the middle of the night when I wake up and I’m afraid and feeling anxious, I remind myself that it’s not always going to be this bad. That I’m not in control of this, that God is in control of this, and I just need to remember that it always won’t be this dark. That the sun’s going to come up in the morning. So that’s it. Thanks. Bye.
KB: Everything Happens is produced in association with North Carolina Public Radio, WUNC. Generous support comes from Faith and Leadership, an online learning resource, The Issachar Fund, The Lilly Endowment, and Duke Divinity School. And I love my team, Beverly Abel, Be The Change Revolutions, and Jessica Richie. If you’re enjoying these conversations, write a review on Apple Podcasts. I’d love to hear your suggestions for future guests. Send me a note on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, @KateCBowler. This is Everything Happens, with me, Kate Bowler.