The Light of Darkness

Many authors suggest that out of still smouldering ashes of an old world order, a new world of greater interdependence, relationship, and openness is slowly being brought to birth. One element is a worldview that moves beyond a dualistic either/or vision to more inclusive vision of both/and. One of its features is not longer viewing light as good and darkness as evil, but seeing in them a complementarity, with darkness having many positive connotations.

One such observation comes from the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, who writes.
“You darkness, of whom I am born/I love you more than all the fires that limit the world,
…But the darkness embraces everything: … and it is possible a great energy/ is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.”

Darkness is in some ways akin to silence, the absence of light corresponding to the absence of sound. Our truest and most resonant words come out of our silence; and music, as Leopold Stokowski observed, is painted on a canvas of silence. I recall a beloved professor who taught the philosophy of art. He once read a poem in class and was so moved by it that, as he read, tears welled up in his eyes. On one occasion, he also told of visiting a factory where the machines operated incomplete silence, and said that the experience was one of total power or energy.

I recently told of the experience of a friend who left his place in the county, in the middle of winter. He was groping his way towards his car in the enveloping darkness when the moon emerged from behind a cloud and cast a pale light on everything. He recounted how he was overwhelmed by the experience that he was loved. On reflection, you might say that this experience was “grounded” in darkness; that just as meaningful words come out of silence, so also meaningful feelings, images, and relationships come out of darkness. Perhaps we may think of darkness, not merely as the opposite of light, but as the creative source from which light emerges.

A story is told of Winston Churchill that, after supper, with a friend, they retired to the living room where no one spoke for a time. The friend commented that it was surprising that, after so many years of friendship, they had nothing to say to each other. Churchill replied that it was all the more surprising that, despite their lengthy friendship, this was the first time that they were able to be silent together. It has also occurred to me that there is a tremendous difference between being in darkness with someone who hates us and experiencing darkness in the company of someone with whom we share a mutual love.

I have just finished reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark. She brings out some of the creative and necessary elements of what are considered the experiences of darkness both in the world outside of ourselves and in our own inner universe. At the outset, before drawing on enriching experiences of darkness, she learned from childhood on that darkness stood for all the things that scared her either because she feared she could not survive them or because she did not want to find out. Later she notes: “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” She then goes on to discuss a variety of creative experiences both of the darkness of the world outside her and of the darkness within.

When I taught a course on folk tales, I was also struck by a few images of darkness. In a lesser known story, The Three Feathers, the youngest son, who is initially regarded as of limited intelligence, turns out to be the wisest. In the quest to succeed the aging king, that is the old dying order, the two older brothers confine their search to the surface. The youngest son finds a trapdoor at his feet and enters into the darkness of the earth. He goes into the dark depth of where he is and of the world around him. There he discovers the wisdom and compassion necessarily for a creative and meaningful life for himself and for others.

The story of Snow White focuses on the powerful attitudes and feelings within oneself, symbolized by the colour red, which stands for the red of love and the red of hate, and the challenge to choose between them. Before arriving at her decision, the young woman must travel through a dark forest. She must enter all the unknown and unexplored regions of her self, and then decide on her basic life direction.

Another image, reflective of Rilke’s words, may be found in the question posed by Albert Einstein. “I think the most important question facing humanity is, ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’ This is the first and most basic question all people must answer for themselves.” We may perhaps think of a favourite analogy of mine. When someone speaks openly and vulnerably to us of their joy or sorrow, the challenge is to listen, to hold a place of silence around their words. Yet that silence is not an emptiness but a caring presence. In a similar vein, in response to Einstein’s question, we may hope that the silent darkness that envelopes and permeates the universe may also be thought of in terms of compassion.

As you become aware of all the seeming dark spaces within you and times of darkness that sometimes surround you, may that darkness be the womb of new and fuller life for yourself and for others whom your life touches in some, even anonymous way.

Norman King, August 09, 2021