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Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

Yearning for the Light: Finding Hope in Life's Dark Tunnels

Hope can sustain you even when you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Recently I saw an IMAX movie that featured some long train tunnels in the Rockies. The tunnels were cut right into the mountains, and a few even made giant loops deep into the mountain rock. On the one hand, these tunnels were a true marvel of engineering, allowing trains to make progress through harsh and unwelcoming terrain. But some of those tunnels were so long. And I imagined them being very dark and constricting inside.

After the movie, I kept thinking about these tunnels. As I described in an earlier entry on symbols, I often find it valuable to pay attention to images that stick in my mind. So I started to reflect on this idea of journeying through a long, dark tunnel: How does this metaphor apply to my life now, and might others be feeling the same?

Well, in terms of my own life now, it didn’t take much of a stretch to see the connection. My tunnel is taking the form of a huge and extremely arduous project, one that I have been working on for about six months. Given my diligent efforts, I had expected to complete it long ago. I had thought that if I just kept plugging away and moving forward at a steady pace, I would be able to finish it fairly quickly. But no. It just keeps going on...and on...and on.

Personal tunnels don’t have to take the form of projects. Your tunnel might be an episode of depression or grief, a prolonged illness, a period of unemployment, a dark night of the soul, or a long, harsh winter.

A short tunnel can be exciting and fun to pass through; it adds novelty to the journey. But what I’m thinking of here are tunnels that are long, dark, and dreary inside...and perhaps with just enough of a curve that you can’t see how far you have to go. Try as you might, you just can’t see that light at the end of the tunnel.

You know that you need to keep working your way through in order to reach that other side. So on and on and on you go. But it takes so much effort. It can feel so lonely and isolated, so chilly and damp inside that tunnel. You may feel trapped. And at times the darkness can seem truly profound. There’s only the occasional blip of light on the wall to punctuate the inky blackness as you chug past.

When pulled away from our usual surroundings and priorities, it’s easy to lose perspective. Is it any wonder that the expression tunnel vision is used to refer to this narrow, constricted, obsessive focus on a single idea or goal? When we have tunnel vision, we can’t seem to think of anything else. All that matters is getting through the tunnel.

Protracted journeys through the darkness require a lot of self-control. The need for sustained effort, especially when combined with problems along the way, can turn the journey into a jaw-clenching, teeth-gritting experience: a grim slog through darkness and discomfort, a miserable test of endurance and stoicism.

Worse, our ruminations can take on a sour or bitter taste, especially when we weren’t expecting the tunnel to be so long. If we’re not careful, our negative thinking can escalate, dragging us into ever-deepening levels of darkness:

"I really don't like this."

“This stinks.”

“This is SO unfair!”

“This is HORRIBLE!!"

“I can’t believe that I’m STILL stuck in this STUPID, STINKING, BLEEPING, GODFORSAKEN place!!!!!”

Yes, you may be sorely tempted to give in to despair, to throw up your hands and say, “That's IT! I QUIT!!!”

But what are you supposed to do then? It may not be easy to back yourself out...and in some cases it might not even be possible to go back.

If we can calm ourselves enough to think objectively about where we are, we can gain some perspective once again: We are simply in a tunnel. It’s not as though we’ve fallen into a bottomless pit. This tunnel has a beginning, and we know (intellectually, at least) that it has an end. If we keep moving forward and doing our part, we will eventually make it through.

So maybe we’ll take a break to catch our breath. While we're at it, we may indulge in some heavy sighs, pouting, grumbling, maybe even some good old-fashioned raging. But eventually we'll make the choice to start moving again.

And on we go.

Ultimately we do believe that the tunnel will have an end. We know that the journey will feel easier when we can finally see that light at the end of the tunnel. And imagine the joy that we'll feel when we re-emerge into the light once again, after such a long time in the shadows!

But at least for now, the tunnel's end remains in that elusive category of "things unseen." And while we wait, our hope is truly being tested.

Yes, we yearn for that light of the end of the tunnel. But even while we continue to wait, the flame of our hope itself can provide some much-needed light. Yes, it's right there, shimmering and dancing in our peripheral vision. To see it, we only need to break out of our tunnel vision for a moment, opening our gaze a little wider.


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Julie Exline, Ph.D.

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.


Julie Exline