Through the Darkest Nights of My Life: Asher’s Story
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Asher” is a pseudonym.
I’m a rising junior at Patrick Henry College.
You invited us to share our own stories rather than speculating in universal commentary, and I appreciate that invitation. The best place for me to start, though, might be with a bit of commentary on a universal aspect of life at PHC. I think it illustrates and introduces well what I hope to say.
First, a little background: at PHC, we have corporate chapel three times a week. In the spring semester, usually one of those weekly slots will be set aside for senior testimonies. In the space of one chapel service at about 20 minutes each, two graduating seniors have the opportunity to reflect, thank, and share the story of what God has done in their life and time at PHC with the whole student body.
As a freshmen, I didn’t know well most of the seniors who shared at the podium, though I knew of practically all of them (the perks and sometimes frustration of a tiny campus like ours). Some were more eloquent or funnier or more spiritually insightful than others. Some of them merited spontaneous, almost immediate standing ovations from the whole student body. Some of them simply produced appreciative applause. Sometimes the audience was awkwardly dragged by politeness into standing, or even more awkwardly divided between standing and not standing. Whatever the effect might have been on the student body as a whole, though, I know how it affected me. I don’t remember every life detail they shared or spiritual insight they told us. But I walked away changed.
Some of their life stories were unspectacular and ordinary from a worldly standpoint. Others reached down deep and opened up their darkest parts: struggles with crippling depression, debilitating eating disorders, pornography addictions, and more. Yet through nearly every last one of them, I saw the same story repeat itself again and again: a driven, determined young person who would somehow change the world – or perhaps just their own world, and escape the long-worn chains and burdens of the past – and prove that they were worth something. That they were worth loving. Then, failure after failure would set in… frustration and anger, despair and sometimes deep darkness would descend. And slowly, slowly, gentle hands would guide them out of their darkness and bondage… and they would re-learn what it means to need and accept grace. Redemption would do its slow, painful, but sure work. And senior after senior, while often admitting that their journey was incomplete and would extend far beyond the halls of PHC, would stand as a witness to the redeeming grace of God on a life too broken for anything else.
I walked away from those testimonies a different person.
I was awestruck to think that so much pain, struggle, hope, desperation, loneliness, longing, fear, striving, failure, victory, joy, sorrow, love, brokenness, and redemption could be possible underneath the daily exterior. These stories were drawn up, streaming and bleeding with the truth of lives lived, from depths too deep for our minds to fathom, much less search out in full. And it blew my mind to think that these kinds of stories were happening all around me without me having any idea. So I prayed a dangerous prayer – to know the hidden pain and suffering around me, and somehow, to ease it by bearing a part of it.
The fall of my sophomore year, my prayer was answered beyond anything I could have dreamed, asked, or imagined. I saw more of broken, hurting, messed up humanity than I’d ever seen before… and through that anguish, I saw hope, redemption, and beauty as I could not have conceived of in my wildest imaginings. It’s a long story; far longer and deeper and richer than my feeble words could share even if you were interested in hearing its entirety.
A crucial part of that story, though, are the brothers and sisters who were with me through every part of it. Through the darkest nights of my life – through seeing friends dearest to my heart battling weariness, grief, depression, cutting, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts – people were there for me when I needed them most. Whatever I needed – words of wisdom, the wordless comfort of a hug, a willing recipient for me to vomit my troubles on (if you think about it, it’s a pretty accurate picture of the kind of friend we all need at times), and endless prayers – they gave generously, lovingly, and unfailingly. Even before we entered that season of more darkness than I’ve ever known before, the friendships I’ve cultivated at PHC have been some of the deepest and most meaningful of my life. That may well be the case with most college experiences – but there’s a unique camaraderie and love that comes with being in a war-zone together. Under fire, bonds are welded that will not be easily broken.
I say all this for a few reasons, I suppose, but this might be the main takeaway: if you step foot on our tiny, NOVA campus, you will see many things. You’ll see students strolling in their business causal best as they laugh together between classes or attentively (usually) take notes in the classroom. You’ll hear debates on predestination, deep philosophical discussions on the Lord of the Rings, and no shortage of some of the most awful puns I’ve heard in my life in the dining hall. You’ll see us holed up in our rooms alone with Plato or in small platoons with Call of Duty (at least in the guy’s dorms, since we’re not co-ed; ask the girls what they do in theirs). You’ll see our jocks practically living in the weight room, and couples infesting our lobbies and lounges. During finals season, you’ll see us slouched over our desks on many a late night hammering away at a paper or procrastinating while we pretend to do so. During chapel, you’ll see us raising our voices to praise the One to whom we owe everything in one of the most beautiful voice ensembles I’ve heard or sung in (though you may well see a few people texting or struggling to stay awake during the speaker). On Sunday nights, you’ll see some of us gathered around a darkened room or out in the open night air, the resonance of a guitar mingling with voices of worship and the whispers of people praying fervently for each other.
Depending on who you are, there are other things you’d see too. You might see a strong Christian community that you’d love your son or daughter to be a part of, or a mob of young people emanating naivety and arrogance in the form of homeschoolers who think they can change the world. What you see in that case, either way, might be determined more by what you expect to see than what’s before you.
You’d see all these things and many more – but there’s a lot you wouldn’t see too.
If you had eyes that could penetrate walls and souls, you might see a bit more.
You’d see good Christian kids with burdens, pains, and hidden tears like everyone else. You’d see some strive harder in hopes that they can earn the love of God, in desperation and loneliness, thinking somehow that they have to do this on their own and not let anyone see behind their façade. You’d see conversations stretching into the deep of night between the hurting and those who feel the hurt just as deeply out of love. You’d see patient listening and long walks around the Farris wheel or tennis court in the dead of night, and tears of relief flooding out on sympathetic shoulders in the dorm rooms. You’d see the prayers, you’d see the hope that comes through giving and receiving love; you’d see the redemption. You’d see that there’s a lot more going on at PHC than just Mock Trial and a crowd of homeschoolers doing homework on the weekends.
If you could see past our exteriors, you’d also see a good deal of soul-weariness, from both the intensity of academics and the burdens of life. You’d see our insecurities and fears, our lonely nights spent wrestling with our various doubts and demons. You’d see hearts perhaps prone to gossip more than they should be, too often stepping carelessly in and around one of the easiest pitfalls of a small, tightly-knit community. You’d see the stubborn pride and judgmental cynicism that God is still weeding out of our hearts, and all of the areas in which we are still being sanctified, made more like the God we fall desperately short of.
At our very core, however, I pray that you would see not homeschoolers, not conservatives, not even college students or young people with drive and talent, but a broken, inadequate sinners who are being made into the image of Christ.
That is my heartbeat at PHC, and I know I’m not alone in that.
Some of that is more a hope than a description of the way PHC is now, and perhaps most of that entails far more universal commentary than you were asking for. What I can say is that I could only ever say any of this because I have experienced it personally, deeply, and repeatedly. More importantly, a core of that very experience is sharing it with many others around me. And I build my hope only off of what I have already seen; though I have seen much brokenness, I have seen the pieces redeemed into beauty – and only because it has been done so many times and so faithfully before, do I have any hope that the work will continue in and among us.
I love PHC. Like all things worth loving on this earth, I know that PHC is far from perfect, and I do my best to let my love give me a more accurate view (not a white-washed one) of PHC’s flaws and shortcomings. And as the student charge at our most recent graduation reminded us, as America will one day go the way of all nations, so PHC will one day go the way of all human institutions. It too was pass away. Yet, when I speak of the PHC I love, I don’t mean a little physical campus out in Loundon County, or even a vision of a liberal arts curriculum centered on Christ. I mean the people. The community of PHC will continue to grow and change over time; but I know that they will far outlast whatever endures of PHC institutionally.
What will remain is this: a broken people redeemed by a grace greater than we will ever know.
That, as best as I can describe it in a too-long-but-too-brief account like this, is what PHC is to me.