And What They Can Teach Us About Moving through Life’s Dark Spaces
Shortly after midnight, I found myself with a group of friends in an empty field. One by one, we descended through a hole in the ground on a 120-foot rope into a large cavern. This was my first time in a cave since I used to escape to my room as a teenager, trying to understand the world by removing myself from it.
A free-fall descent gives you nothing to feel secure with; no firm wall to press your legs against. I spun slowly, my headlight bouncing off the sides of the cathedral cavern. The light cast shadows of our crew against the walls as I drew closer to the cave’s floor. Our shadows made us appear ginormous, revealing how scary our light can be.
We stood underground in silence as our crew gradually expanded. I’m not sure we were asked or told to be silent. There was simply something sacred in the cave that called us to do that. To be present to the moment. Or maybe it was the mesmerising way the light was spiralling, sending us into a trance.
It was not what I expected; nervous upon entry that I would be claustrophobic. This cave was vast, and seemingly endless. There were times we had to crawl through a narrow tunnel or squeeze into a tight space. But every passageway opened to a bigger cavern, each time taking us deeper.
The cave of adolescence
t’s funny when a teenager demands “Give me space!” and then proceeds to burrow away in a tiny room.
I was fourteen when I first got my own room, sharing one with my brother prior to that. This tiny space had two narrow windows and little more than a body-length of open floor around the furniture. Yet it was the most expansive and wondrous place to me. Finally, I could block out the social world and discover my inner one.
It wasn’t that I was introverted or hated being outside. My great love as a child was nature; I spent many weekends camping and hiking in national parks around my state. But withdrawal was powerful and necessary. It helped in my struggle to understand life.
Finding one’s way
We exited the cave to a world lit only by a new moon. A moon emerging as slowly and assuredly as this new light was emerging within me. We had a short walk to our second cave, this time one we could crawl into.
Our guide invited us to enter with only a few headlights between us. We were to take note of what we observed with all our senses as we moved through the cave. We eventually found ourselves in a small room, large enough for ten people to sit semi-comfortably. Cross-legged, we enveloped a round rock that sat in the middle of our circle. Our guide invited us to remove our remaining headlights and take in the experience as sound. With no natural light for our eyes to adjust to, it was pure darkness.
Sitting in the black silence, someone started to rhythmically beat their chest. Thud, thud, thud. Thud, thud, thud. Another joined in with finger clicks, and another with thigh slaps. The sound was building as each person emanated their own sound and rhythm using their body, voice, and breath. A simple song became a joyous symphony.
Unbeknownst to us our guide had taken our remaining headlights and left the cave while we were lost in the music. When the symphony reached its coda, it took us a long moment to realise what happened. We were stuck in the cave without a light or a guide. Now we had to find our way out.
A few of us, convinced we knew the way, searched with our hands to try and find the narrow entrance through which we came. Others sat in disbelief; only one in panic. A half-hour went by and still no exit.
Then, click, click, click.
What was that?
Click, click, click.
Click, click, click.
Our guide, so it seemed, was making a sound from outside the cave. We each tried to follow the sound as it bounced off the walls, each sure that we knew where it was coming from. Listening to our own inner voices can be like that. Always sure that we know what truth is when often it is the echo of another. We eventually found our way out to a mix of exhilaration, relief, and disbelief. It was now broad daylight.
When it all goes dark
There were times in my room as a teenager where there was no light and only darkness. And despite there being a door to my room, I didn’t know the way out. I wasn’t even sure I wanted out — that somehow this small cave-with-four-white-walls protected me.
I would listen to the sounds swirling around my head, convinced I knew what was right. I desperately wanted to turn the cacophonous chaos of thoughts and fears into a symphony.
I didn’t want to be guided out though. I needed to do this on my own terms; to be my own composer and conductor.
On my own, but not alone
I eventually became a caving guide. I was once called in as a substitute guide in a cave I hadn’t been before. It was important to know the cave inside-out in order to lead a group.With this cave, we would give the group a list of twelve written instructions outlining how to make their way through it.
Crawl 100 feet
Turn left and pass through a narrow tunnel
Search for a chute and lower yourself down
…and so on…
If each person remembered one of the instructions, it became a fantastic exercise of teamwork. But before leading a group, my supervisor required me to find my way through the cave — unassisted — by memorising all twelve instructions.
The cave wasn’t particularly spectacular. There were few stalactites or stalagmites to enjoy, and most of the muddy passageways were no more than three-feet high. It required crawling on hands and knees and after two hours I made it out with my legs burning. My supervisor was with me, occasionally encouraging me and dropping a well-timed hint. I was grateful for her, although to this day would never voluntarily enter that cave again.
No one gives teenagers a map
There isn’t a list of directions for the teen years, although I guess that if I was given instructions, I would probably have ignored them anyways. Teenagers are simply required to crawl through their muddy adolescence on hands and knees. It’s difficult and it burns.
It’s important to have someone in your corner to encourage you and drop a few hints. It can be an uncomfortable rite of passage that one must simply endure. And I’m yet to meet a single adult who would voluntarily go back and relive their teenage years. Some caves just need to be experienced and not retraveled.
The only way out is through
The most transformative cave had all the markings of a great adventure. It had a stream running through it, several chambers of crystal formations, and fun passageways reminiscent of my favourite childhood film, The Goonies. Leading a group of teenagers through this cave was always a treat — a perfect blend of apprehension and excitement. We were each exploring a new world.
This cave had a point-of-no-return. An almost vertical laundry-chute with a nine-foot drop made it difficult to exit the way we entered. There was a moment where I’d say to the group, “If you need to exit now, this is the spot. If you choose to go further, you’ll need to go to the very end.”
This was more as a safety precaution for those who — for whatever reason — may not be able to handle the super-tight spaces. We encouraged them to continue, as the reward was so great. I never witnessed anyone exit prematurely.
The laundry-chute was tight. It required you to straighten your body into an arrow and slide down. An act of surrender to be sure. From there the cave followed through several narrow passages before opening to a final cavern.
The cavern was barely lit by a sliver of natural light creeping in through a gap that would be our exit. The stream running through the cave made it to this cavern. The only way out was to submerge oneself in the cold water, slide under a rocky overhang, and emerge on the other side into daylight.
By this stage our group of teenagers had built a sense of resilience and adventure. They looked at the challenge knowing the only way out was through it. It took courage. With rightful nerves, each person dived into the water, and each person made it out. On the other side we stood in the warm sun cheering each other on as they made it through. They gave it the nickname, Rebirth Cave.
There’s light on the other side
A teenager escaping to their room is primal. Just as a newborn baby instinctively knows how to breathe, a teenager knows the only way through is to go within. We need space and time in the cave of adolescence.
Teaching a child how to lock the door of their own cave is a powerful lesson in loving, protecting, and discovering oneself. It also allows them to reopen to the world when they are ready.
Caving — like life — can feel claustrophobic and scary at times. There are days where life gets dark, and others where it is a dynamic adventure. We move through dark spaces that eventually open to freedom.
No matter how old we become, life invariably invites us to reenter the cave. To go within and rediscover lost parts of ourselves. There are times I want to resist these experiences, but I remind myself of what the cave offers. Despite how dark it might get, there is light on the other side. And we can cheer each other on through every reemergence.