“I will give you the treasures of darkness…” (Isaiah 45:3)
When I was a child, I was afraid of the dark. I was certain that hideous creatures lurked in the shadows, ready to pounce the minute I let down my guard. At bedtime I insisted that the hall light outside my bedroom door remain lit until after I fell asleep, convinced that it would keep the other-worldly beings at bay.
Like most children, I eventually outgrew the need for that reassuring light. In fact, these days when I’m trying to sleep, I find light disturbing. Instead, I need darkness.
What facilitated that change is hard to say, but I suspect it had a lot to do with spending time outdoors after dark. Stargazing with my mother, playing “ghost in the graveyard” with neighborhood kids, sleep-overs at rustic Girl Scout or church camps all contributed to making me more at ease with the darkness. Nights spent with friends and flashlights navigating nearby yards or the woods that surrounded our campsites taught me that a landscape I knew by day wasn’t so different by night.
Not only did I stop dreading the dark, eventually began to discover its treasures.
To this day I try to carve out a little time each day to be outdoors after sundown. I especially love the twilight when the sun’s light gives way to the moon and stars. As the light shifts, familiar sights like the silhouettes of our temporarily leafless trees begin to come more prominently into view. During the day their beauty can be lost against the backdrop of brilliant blue sky and puffy white clouds – or even bulbous gray clouds on a rainy day. But at night they are standouts.
And of course, there are the stars. We know very well that they are always there, but without a dark sky we would never see them.
I know that my increasing level of comfort with the dark is at odds with the more popular understanding of darkness as something negative, even sinister. It’s easy to equate darkness with evil and light with good. But the truth is that important things happen in the dark, like gestation, rest, renewal.
Still, I’m well aware that there’s another sort of darkness; a darkness that’s felt more than seen or heard. It’s the inner ache that comes as the result of a loss, shock, or failure. It’s the experience of being disoriented as everything we thought we knew about ourselves and the world we inhabit seems to be crumbling. We’re left wondering who we are in this unwanted new reality.
We naturally try to avoid these experiences – or more to the point, we seek to avoid the pain they cause. We live in a culture that encourages us to just get over it, move on, find closure. So we’re tempted to deny or bury our anger, grief, frustration, our any other feelings we label “negative.”
As a chaplain, minister, and spiritual director, I have accompanied people who are trying to make their way through their personal darkness. And I’ve been in those spaces in my own life. Here’s what I’ve discovered: trying to avoid or outrun the pain and heartache only serves to make them grow stronger. They will come back. And when they do, the impact may be worse.
The only way to move beyond dark painful places is to move through them. It’s best to accept where we are and learn to navigate this murky and unfamiliar territory. And, as I learned when overcoming my childhood fear of the dark, it’s also helpful to have a friend, or even a professional, who knows the turf who can accompany and guide us so that we don’t go it alone.
When we do this, we discover that even these inner dark places contain their own treasures in the form of internal resources. Resilience, compassion, and understanding are just a few of the qualities that are strengthened. Our darkness can become the fertile ground in which new life is nurtured, opening a way to new life that we might never have imagined possible.