Something in the Way

Kurt Cobain, Elijah, and the Dark Night of the Soul

Something in the Way

Kurt Cobain, Elijah, and the Dark Night of the Soul


There’s an uneasy, slow-moving shadow over DC’s latest rendition of The Batman. Standing in place of the familiar playboy billionaire detective is a wounded thirty-year-old wearing eyeliner who has reserved the title “Vengeance” for himself. Watching this budding hero attempt to punch his way out of the hole of his own pain is a bit like listening to three hours of Nirvana’s “Something In The Way” on repeat — a song which bookends the film with plain intention.

In the weeks and months after The Batman, “Something in the Way” shot up the billboard charts. Clearly, the song hits a nerve in a way that can’t be written off as another case of 90s nostalgia.

For context, the song describes the emotional turmoil and plight of living without a home in this world. For years, the opening lyrics, “underneath the bridge, tarp has sprung a leak” were interpreted as lead singer Kurt Cobain’s attempt to put to words his own experiences of homelessness in his adolescent years. Though this would later be proved to be a myth, the homeless imagery and the angsty mood of the song expresses a frustration with the world. As if it has conspired against Cobain to put a series of setbacks in his way. But by the end of the song and its unending chorus, one is left with the impression that there’s something else going on below the surface, that maybe the thing in the way is Cobain himself.

There exists an inner dark night of the soul that can’t be cured by human achievement or effort.  Regardless of the desire to heal, the walls of the well of sadness and purposelessness are too high to scale and climb out. Something else will always get in the way, leaving you right back where you started.

This is one of many hidden messages in the life of one of the more well known prophets in the Old Testament. Even if you didn’t grow up in Sunday school, there’s still a chance you’ve heard the story of Elijah and how he single handedly took 400 false prophets to task in an epic showdown of “Whose God is Real Anyway?” If there were a hall of fame for the prophets, Elijah calling fire down from heaven would earn him one of the tallest trophies.

What often gets less stage time is the dark night of the soul that follows Elijah’s literal mountain top experience. He pleads with God to end his life the day after this career high moment. He has vanquished his enemy — there’s no long anything in his way — but he finds himself forlorn. His cry out for death resembles Psalm 88, the only prayer in the Bible that ends without a single hint of hope: “Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me? You have taken from me friend and neighbor — darkness is my closest friend.”

British journalist Oliver Burkeman describes two main forms of suffering that plagues the human experience:

  1. The kind that results from power disparities between groups: racism, sexism, economic inequality.
  2. The universal kind that comes with being a finite human, faced with a limited lifespan, the inevitability of death, the unavoidability of grief and regret, the inability to control the present or predict the future and the impossibility of ever fully knowing even those to whom we’re closest.

The first form of suffering rightly gets a lot of airtime in the news, coverage in our scrolling, and in conversation because it’s that form of suffering that human beings can actually solve, at least in part. Campaigns to end any “ism,” that is, any form of suffering inflicted from one group to another, can be successful. In many ways, it is the form of suffering humans can do something about. Amid our pursuit of happiness, an obstacle gets in our way and must be overcome.

The second form, the kind that rests a layer deeper than what we can do to one another, cannot be solved with human hands. The problem isn’t out there somewhere, but seems to be much closer to home.

This deeper layer of suffering is no respecter of persons. It’s an inner insecurity revealed by both Cobain and Elijah. No amount of fire called down from heaven, musically or literally, can inhibit our unrest — our own dark nights of the soul. Regardless of the level of severity, if you are a human being, you have experienced that inner anxiety, even if outward circumstances are going your way. This inner turmoil can’t be fixed with outward solutions. Our efforts for resolve are in vain — there is, as Cobain diagnoses, “something in the way” and that something is us.

What hope do we have? Where do we turn?

God’s response to Elijah is a proverbial lighthouse for us. After letting him take a couple naps and giving him a sandwich, God has him go up on another mountain. But this time, God’s got something better for Elijah than a dramatic accomplishment. He sees terrifying and wondrous acts. A mountain falls apart from a windstorm. And then an earthquake and firestorm come and go. In all these, God was absent. But then he hears a gentle whisper (1 Kings 19:11-12). What comes after the gentle whisper? Nothing. No “but’s” — God himself is in the gentle whisper! Elijah expected to hear God in impressive, powerful displays, but what he needed most was the gentle whisper of God.

This whisper waits to take full shape until the New Testament, in which the person of Jesus takes center stage. He extends an invitation to come to him to find the type of soul-rest you can’t achieve for yourself. Because he is gentle and lowly in heart. Because he himself is the whisper of God.

While he’s dying on the cross, he shouts “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The people who hear the shout respond saying, “he’s calling Elijah.” In one sense, they are correct, but maybe not in the way they first intend. Jesus is calling Elijah and everyone else who has ever experienced the universal kind of suffering that comes with being human.

In love, he steps into the void of our deepest anxieties, puts them on like a robe, and then burns beneath the fiery wrath of God in our place. He became our dark night of the soul to remove the “something in the way.” Elijah was spared from the earthquake of God because Jesus redirected it to himself on the cross, when the earth shook as it swallowed the son of man. In his death, he descends to hell to break the deep chains that bind us and set us free to receive his rest.

Come to me, he says. My yoke is easy and my burden is light. Light of course means “not heavy,” but it is also equally true to say his burden is light itself, capable of illuminating our darkest darkness. In him, nothing is in the way.


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