When the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, was directed by God to preach repentance to his enemies, the Assyrians, he refused.
Not only did he refuse, he took the first boat he could find travelling in the opposite direction of the Assyrian City of Ninevah, his intended assignment.
At the time, Ninevah was messed up and the people there were pretty bad. Something like St. Louis, but worse. Jonah mistrusted God and decided flight was preferable to a fight with the enemies of Israel.
He hopped a boat bound for Tarshish seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was not invisible and that the God of the Old Testament was, on certain issues, an angry God.
Perhaps because he was a minor prophet, Jonah also did not foresee that God might be upset by this act of disobedience. God was not amused and sent a storm.
Jonah’s shipmates were a shrewd bunch, though a little weak-hearted. They figured out pretty fast that they would be collateral damage in the storm that was sent to punish Jonah. So, they drew lots to determine who would toss him over-board. To this day nobody knows the name of the crewman who threw Jonah into the Mediterranean, just that the job got done, and the storm stopped.
Jonah was swallowed by a whale. It is said that he spent three days and nights in the belly of that whale and, unlike Geppetto who packed a candle, was in total darkness. There, Jonah asked for salvation.
On the third day, Jonah was the beneficiary of the whale’s indigestion and was vomited onto shore. He was a mess but got with the program and made his way to Ninevah.
Obviously good at setting limits and boundaries with consequences, God directed Jonah to deliver a warning of impending destruction. The City of Ninevah was given forty days to turn things around.
The Assyrians were unexpectedly receptive. They took Jonah’s warning seriously perhaps because Jonah showed some signs of suffering consequences himself. His hair and skin had been bleached the color of bone by the whale’s gastric acids, although his aroma may have been warning enough.
The Assyrians donned sackcloth and ashes in repentance. God spared Ninevah.
The Jonah Lessons
The story of Jonah teaches those of us who have been plunged into darkness –into the belly of the whale– that we have work to do.
Raging at our plight is a knee-jerk response. It may bring momentary relief but the darkness is not dispelled by emotional outbursts. We can complain all we want but in the end, it gets us no closer to locating the light switch.
Being in the belly of the whale teaches us five key lessons. Through these lessons we come to see that the darkness is not a place that we are sent for punishment for our sins. It is a place where we are arrested, like Jonah, for transformation. Our task is to connect to a higher vision for our lives.
1. Thou shalt stop
Sudden change can produce shock and shock can induce the experience of overwhelm, helplessness and lack of will. The remedy for rapid dominance is not frantic activity.
Darkness requires us to stop doing what we did that produced the crisis in the first place. Many of us are so invested in a point of view, a course of action, or a pattern of behavior that we cannot stop because it is all that we know.
When darkness overcomes us, attempting to move in any direction is reckless. We are in the grips of a transformative process that we do not command. All we can do in the belly of the whale is give up any notion of control, let go of our agenda, and surrender.
That surrender can take three days, three weeks, or three years. It is up to us. Our fears dictate the length of our stay.
When we do surrender to the transformative forces, we gain access to stillness. Stillness is the place within us that is available once we have let go of stress, anxiety, anger, resentment, ambitions and other drivers that keep us locked in to a pattern of action and disconnected from our own guidance. “Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary,” wrote Herman Hesse, “to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.”
The darkness provides us sanctuary and once we have entered it we know that we can return there anytime, return to ourselves. Without outer distractions, we learn to see what is most important to our lives.
2. Thou shalt quell thy fears
Jonah was running scared and making bad decisions. His fears were undermining his own wisdom and guidance– represented here by the God of the Old Testament– and those fears were carrying him in the opposite direction of his highest purpose.
The lesson here is we must never make life choices when we are afraid.
When we allow our fears to overcome us, we are carried far off course and are unable to discern what is in our own best interest, the best interest of the people we care about, and the best interest of our mission in the world.
Fear never helps us when we are in the dark. As long as we allow it to control us, the work of surrender and reflection cannot be accomplished. Our energy is diverted to feeding fear instead of searching our hearts for guidance.
As mentioned, the length of time that we remain in the dark is dependent upon how long it takes for us to quell our fears. Bertrand Russell reminds us, “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”
3. Thou shalt trust
The remedy to fear is trust. Jonah mistrusted his mission and his ability to carry it out. He fled rather than trust that he could accomplish what he had been directed to do.
Darkness challenges us to remain true to ourselves even when we are confused, disoriented or uncertain about the way forward.
Although we are not in control of the transformative process, we do have responsibilities. The most important of these is to have faith in our destiny and ourselves.
We are asked to trust that, even though our situation may be difficult, we have what it takes to find clarity. We must also trust that we have the inner resources to carry out what must do, to find a pathway to greater happiness and to peace of mind.
Trust delivers us from self-abandonment, the destination that our fear would set for us. Through trust we begin to see a direction home to what has heart and meaning in our lives. Even when we can’t see this clearly, we must trust that we have the capacity to find the inner compass.
4. Thou shalt listen
There is no record of what Jonah thought about being swallowed by a whale, although he did repent. We can speculate that shock and awe may have described the experience.
Overwhelm, helplessness and lack of will are symptoms of paralysis of the mind. The mind– and especially the ego– provides unreliable guidance at times of turbulence or sudden change.
When we cannot figure things out, we are forced to seek guidance from a source other than the ego, or remain stuck and disoriented. This requires us to listen.
Listen to what?
Beneath the chatter of our fears and the mistaken agenda of the ego is another voice. This is the wisdom voice of the heart. In stillness and through reflection, it’s guidance can be heard, directing us to what’s most important to our lives, who and what we love, what work is worth doing, and how to be happy no matter what our circumstances might be.
Of course, the refusal to listen was Jonah’s undoing. He failed to listen and obey a power greater than his own ego. The calamity that befell him as a result is a reminder that there are always consequences for our choices.
In his book, The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell suggests that Jonah’s mistake is a common one:
“The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves or have listened only to what their neighbors say to learn what they ought to do, how they ought to behave, and what the values are they ought to be living for.”
Darkness provides an opportunity to listen to something other than the siren song of the times. Returned to the seat of the self, we can hear what is most important and what we must do differently to align with the heart’s direction. That time, however long it takes, is time well spent.
5. Thou shalt change
Ultimately, the lesson of Jonah is about change. Those of us who have been plunged into darkness by our own hand, or the winds of a turbulent world, have a choice. We can remain in the belly of the whale, held there by the confusions of ego or our desires, or we can choose to align ourselves with the wisdom of the heart.
With that choice a fundamental transformation comes about. We are no longer governed by the material values of the world around us. We are no longer subject to the willful struggle to uphold the ego’s agenda.
We begin to hear the faint sounds of the heart, of what we love. The more we attend to the voice of the heart, the stronger its direction becomes.
That surrender accomplished, our salvation begins. We are deposited on new shore, with fluency that is rooted in our heart’s truth. That truth is only available to us from the depths of our being. Freed from the turbulence of the mind and the world, we gain the ability to revision our life.
© Patrick O’Neill 2012. All rights reserved.