Those Dark Nights of the Soul

November arrives on The Yard and even though it doesn’t usher in a new season, it brings its own winds of change. The brilliant colors of October begin to fade, the days become shorter, and the wind comes off the Severn just a bit colder. All of that can bring about a subtle shift in moods.

I have seen some USNA parents express that their son or daughter always knew they were in the right place and that they accepted any difficulty with a stiff upper lip and a can-do attitude right up to and through commissioning. My experience tells me that description fits an incredibly small number of Midshipmen. I can name on one hand (with fingers to spare) the number of Mids I know who never once questioned their decision to accept their appointment, who never, even for a fleeting moment, thought, “this isn’t for me.”

Many have used the term “dark night of the soul” but when Susan Weisberg, author of the amazing Chester Midshipmouse series, used it in a conversation with me, it resonated quite deeply. And November’s arrival brings with it a perfect setting for just that event, especially for the Plebes and the Youngsters.

The Plebes have survived summer, of course, but also the jarring start to the academic year and have cleared an important hurdle with their first sets of six-week exams. Most have settled into an academic year routine. And that’s where the doubts can begin.

As all of the academic year newness wears off, they come to realize the grind is very real and quite relentless. All Plebe Summer long, they looked toward Plebe Parents Weekend as a respite before the academic year. With Hell(o) Night, the beginning of classes, and their first March On for a football game (not to mention the pushups), new experiences filled their days and nights. 

As October slips away, the grind takes hold. The Plebes realize “this” is simply the way it is and while Thanksgiving is within sight, it is only a break and a small one at that. 

My son’s doubts came to the surface on I Day when he said “I’m not sure that I can do this” and by the time October arrived, it brought with it his Dark Night of the Soul. Friends filled his Instagram feed with pictures of elaborately decorated dorm rooms, selfies with beaming friends, and stories of all matters of social activities. At first, he said that it looked fun initially but then became repetitive, making him wonder how much fun it could really be. After a few more weeks, the non-stop highlight reel of fun, fun, fun, only made chow calls, Pro Know, and late-night watch that much more difficult to stomach.

While his letters home because less frequent after Plebe Summer, they contained only a mild undercurrent of concern. However, he and I had several conversations in October about his doubts. He hadn’t made the Sprint football team and he thought staying at the Academy would mark the end of his playing days. After months of being recruited by Division III schools with the promise of competing for a starting spot on Day 1, this proved a bitter pill to swallow. I admitted that the coach recruiting him to his backup school had been in touch more than once to see if Noah had changed his mind and that, with a word, he would get him set up for Spring classes and, of course, Spring ball. The coach at USNA didn’t want him, the other coaches did.

An avid outdoorsman, he pined for the campuses we visited out West. He reminded me of how each school provided ready access to outdoor equipment for camping, hiking, backpacking, kayaking, you name it. The Yard seemed smaller and smaller and the walls seemed to grow taller and taller. He longed to hike a mountain or feel the arid breeze of the desert Southwest on his face.

We talked about the long-term, of course, how this narrow path led to something few could achieve. In the end, though, this had to be his decision. I was merely a sounding board and a friendly ear.

After he said “I don’t know what to do” for the thousandth time, I could tell he arrived at a decision point, a watershed moment, and it was time to make the call. While I couldn’t point him in the right direction, I could help him size up the decision.

First, I said, you have to decide if the endgame is what you really want. Do you want to be a Naval officer? Do you want that combination of leadership and sacrifice for our country? If the answer is yes, you have to make an assessment. How much of what you don’t like is about being a Plebe versus being at the Naval Academy versus being in the Navy? If it’s about being a Plebe, that’s pretty short-term in the grand scheme of things. If it’s the Naval Academy, there are other paths to becoming a Naval officer. If it’s being in the Navy, start packing up your gear and I’ll be down to get you home.

I counseled him to give that some heavy thought and take it to prayer. He knew this could not be a knee-jerk decision or one based on some little thing. It had to take the long view. Of course, it killed me that he couldn’t make a snap decision even though I knew that wouldn’t be prudent.

We talked several times over the course of October and since he didn’t mention that discussion, I didn’t bring it up. We’d talk about school, his roommate and squadmates, playing with the Trident Brass, and daily life. Finally, near the end of the month, he said he was ready to talk about it.

By his calculations, about 90% of what he didn’t like was about being a Plebe. Once he came to that realization, the rest just fell into place. He loved the mission he was heading toward and he respected the discipline required by the Academy, even though a lot of it didn’t make sense.

Thanksgiving proved to be a well-timed break during which he provided us with more color around his life as a Midshipman. The rest also gave him the boost he needed to get through the rest of the semester. By the time Christmas arrived, I couldn’t say with 100% certainty that he’d get to the finish line and commission, but I knew that the sun had risen on his Dark Night of the Soul.

Other Mids have their moments at other times, especially the upcoming Dark Ages. Some Youngsters get past the new feeling of not being a Plebe and realize that they are now in for a long grind, too. They also know that come Spring, they will be nearing the end of the time when they can use their Get Out of Jail Free card and walk away. Before their Third-Class year begins, they will sign their 2 for 7s which means if they have any doubts, the time to address them is running out.

Yes, that Dark Night takes many forms and can arrive at any time. Some will recognize it as their signal to take the off-ramp and pursue their future elsewhere. Most see it as the devil whispering in their ear and press on. The Naval Academy and life as a Naval officer aren’t for everybody, even some of the few chosen for the opportunity. Whatever the outcome, the Dark Night of the Soul serves an important, if painful, purpose as it has for many years and its lessons will serve our Mids well in the Fleet.

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