When I was 9 months pregnant and my daughter decided that 13 days was an appropriate amount of time to be late, every woman who had ever given birth decided to tell me how all of their kids had been right on time with hardly any trouble. Considering I’d already had two difficult pregnancies and births, I did not receive their happy little stories charitably. Even worse were the ones who had the absolute cure for delayed labor. They were full of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts.’ If I just did it like they did, my little girl would RUSH into the world. Yeah – nothing worked. They had their experience, and it seemed I was about to have one that was just mine.
Similarly, when I was first diagnosed with depression, my doctor warned me that, if my new meds worked as she hoped they would, I would be tempted to tell everyone who is depressed that they ‘should’ take the same meds. Her words to me were, “Don’t be that person. Don’t decide you can write an article about overcoming depression just because these meds happen to work for you this one time.” Sure enough, when I began to see daylight again, I wanted to tell everyone how it could be the same for them! Fortunately, my doctor’s warning prompted me to turn it into listening and simply being transparent when the Spirit prompted.
When I opened Shelley Trebesch’s Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. The way she described her period of isolation, with its attendant emotions and struggles, reminded me that I am not alone and other leaders have, do, and will experience this deep desperation of isolation. As I read on, though, Trebesch became “that person” for me. Her answers and lessons, while honest and vulnerable, were very neat and tidy. She wrote, “When we talk about an extended isolation time it could last for a very long time but with varying intensity, more intense at first and less as time goes on. We MUST (emphasis mine), no matter how long it takes, get the value out of Isolation that God has in it.” I wrote in the margin, “SAYS WHO?” I continued to read and glean as many things as I could from the book, but I couldn’t shake the sense that the lessons learned and the transformations experienced are not always as neat and tidy as Trebesch experienced and teaches. I love that she had that experience. I suppose I’m even a little jealous.
In 2003, God started stripping things away and moving me towards isolation and change by asking me to give up success in my work and return to school. In 2008, I experienced more devastation and entered into a deep, dark isolation that I have yet to walk out of. Rather than growing less intense as time goes on, many days it feels like I am being crushed by the intensity of it. Job loss, ministry loss, financial loss, physical and emotional loss, and the loss of friendships and family relationships have landed on me like a stack of suffocating, weighted blankets. I have found places to breathe and to rest, and there are lights and victories, but those questions about worth and identity continue to roil as I wrestle with where God is calling me, and if I will be too old when I finally figure it out. If I were to ascribe to Trebesch’s theology, I would believe that God designed this dark night to test me or to burn away the dross. What I have learned instead, through the help of my Spiritual Director and my spiritual formation classes, is (as trite as it sounds) what others have meant for harm, God will redeem for good. Every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of beauty from ashes. When I can’t hear God speak, someone who can comes alongside and reminds me to hang on. Even though I was frustrated with Trebesch’s book, for example, her formulas and bullet-points reminded me that God is faithful even when we can’t see it. Her sunny gratitude for having survived the isolation reminds me that there must be a light coming.
Most of all, I think I am learning that isolation and the dark night are more like gestation and delivery than many of us would like to imagine. I feel like a newborn whose mother has been in labor for far too long and we are both in distress. Even though everyone assures us that it will all be okay and that the light of new life is coming, the darkness and pain presses in making it difficult to believe. I wonder if God is my mother in this scenario? Is it painful for God to transition from the gentle intimacy of having me in the womb to the pain of labor and, one day, delivery? Does God ache and cry out with those labor pains as my heartbeat decelerates with the crushing intensity? When I whisper, “How long, oh Lord?” does God pant, “How long indeed?” Somehow, that visual makes the isolation more tolerable today.
 Shelley Trebesch, Isolation: A Place of Transformation in the Life of a Leader, (Altadena, CA: Barnabas Publishers, 1997), 8.