The Dark

The hard part about winter for me is not necessarily the cold…its the darkness. I don’t know what its like where you are, but around these parts I figure we spend about 1/3 of any 24 hour period in the light and the rest of the time darkness rules. So its the dark that’s on my mind today.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with darkness. Its a great excuse for the lazy among us to hibernate. And it seems that there are some who prefer the dark for prowling. But overall, we seem to want to avoid it.

On the other hand, we all know that a certain kind of darkness we’ve been living with is about to end. I find a mixture of disgust and curiosity as I watch George W. reflect on his tenure in office while trying to avoid the dark. As you know, he’s in the process of giving interviews these days, perhaps thinking that he can shed some light on his “legacy.”

It has been clear for a long time now that W. has no capacity to reflect on himself and his actions. That’s why he will always lack the ability to grow and learn. And while none of us are as incapacitated as he is, its hard for us too. Looking at the darkness that resides within us is perhaps one of the most difficult things we are asked to do.

I am reminded of a scene in Arthur Miller’s play After the Fall. The main character Quentin (who is Jewish) is asking a German woman how she lives with herself after the Holocaust. Here’s what she says.

I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self. One day the house smells of fresh bread, the next of smoke and blood. One day you faint because the gardener cuts his finger off, within a week you’re climbing over corpses of children bombed in a subway. What hope can there be if that is so?

I tried to die near the end of the war. The same dream returned each night until I dared not go to sleep and grew quite ill. I dreamed I had a child, and even in the dream I saw it was my life, and it was an idiot, and I ran away. But it always crept onto my lap again, clutched at my clothes. Until I thought, if I could kiss it, whatever in it was my own, perhaps I could sleep. And I bent to its broken face, and it was horrible…but I kissed it. I think one must finally take one’s life in one’s arms.

Whenever I shrink at the thought of looking at my own darkness, I try to think of this baby clutching my clothes and imagine taking her up in my arms. Too often though, I get defensive and don’t take the time to realize that if I could honestly look at myself and embrace what I see – warts and all – I’d perhaps have the strength to find the only real hope that is available to me when it looks like the world is falling apart…myself.

When I have been able to face my own darkness, I find fear, guilt, shame, anger…its tough. But more often than not, the experience leaves me with what David Whyte has called “Sweet Darkness.”

When your eyes are tired

the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone

no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark

where the night has eyes

to recognize its own.

There you can be sure

you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb


The night will give you a horizon

further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:

the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds

except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet

confinement of your aloneness

to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.


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  1. For example, while I was writing this, I kept thinking of the quote by Marianne Williamson that is often attributed to Nelson Mandela.

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

    Somehow I feel that our inability to look at the darkness keeps us from seeing the light as well. The yin and yang always come as a package deal.

  2. …to bask under a halogen lightbox and take zoloft, than to curse the dark.

    About 3 degrees north of you.  Eight hours of sunlight through clouds.

    There’s a beautiful short story that starts on this theme…”A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

    • kj on December 7, 2008 at 17:36

    i wish i could encompass everything i love and fear about the dark in this one comment, but that is impossible.   this essay of yours, NL, is really beautiful.    

    • kj on December 7, 2008 at 17:50

    once in Alaska, have sadd, have had a whole bunch of loss and shit to process in this life. the dark was sought, and not always in a productive way, and also terrified.  complicated relationship with dark, to say the least.

    so one year, i decided to ‘go with the season.’ if it was dark, then i would sink into it.  no bright lights to counter (well, except for the lights jess talks about above, because as much as i wanted to experience dark, i wasn’t going to be too stupid about it).  all sorts of things and feelings and memories were found lying fallow underneath the frozen ground.  truly rich ‘shit’ compost, potential.

    i started to celebrate February 1-2, Goddess/Saint Bridget, ie, Candlemas, lamb birthing, cross-quarter day, and you know, that was probably the richest season of my life.

    i do what i can each year to replicate it in some way.  because i want to learn, i want to be aware, i want some of that ‘sweet darkness,’ even if it makes me cry.  it’s my “Raisin Girl” that wants that embrace, and who am i to deny her a hug?

    • kj on December 7, 2008 at 17:59

    lol!  sorry.   πŸ˜€

  3. is not that we each and every one of us have a space of it inside. No the problem is that we live in a society that so relentlessly preaches happiness and positivity that nobody is allowed to speak about or embrace their own darkness. False cheer depresses me more than a sad day.

  4. …that I found this summer.

  5. of being idiotic or excellent.  It’s pleasant to imagine a society of people who could hug their inner child and set off to be what they can be, having lost in reflection the useless fear of being excellent or idiotic.  What a nice new day to follow the darkness that has hung over the land.  In the afternoon, they could try hugging each other’s child, too.

    • kj on December 7, 2008 at 18:42

    the thing i so admire about David Whyte’s work is his ability to just go there.  he doesn’t mince about sideways, he just speaks, beautifully and openly about human beings and their feelings, desires, nightmares, hopes.  he’s a fantastic poet.

    • Alma on December 7, 2008 at 18:54

    was to know themselves.  Course I really didn’t realize at the time that was what I was teaching them.  I had always tried to honestly know myself.  Most times the knowledge of your not so good side comes after a situation you’re not so proud of.  I always go over and over things to find what my real motives, or emotions might have been, so I can work on correcting it, or finding a better way to live with it.  I automatically did that with the kids when they did things that didn’t work out well.  

    I figured it out when my son was 4 or 5.  He had superior vocabulary skills, or it was like talking to a much older child. I took care of my two kids aged 3 and 4, my nephew age 4 and the neighbor kids, aged 2 and 3.  My son told me he was going to hide behind the livingroom chair for awhile to relax because he needed a break and alone time everyday.  We didn’t know it at the time but he’s an aspergers syndrome person.

    Now the flip side.  My hubby and his family actually seemed to learn to hide from themselves.  I’m still working on him.  πŸ˜‰

    • kj on December 7, 2008 at 19:02

    Springsteen’s Human Touch

  6. that most of the posts on this thread are by women, no judgment, just an observation. I’ve always been drawn towards women who turn inwards this way, thank you all for the courage you’ve found in your lives.

    I can’t find words of my own right now to speak of my own explorations of the dark, within and without. Fascinating and terrifying journey, rich with rewards. Instead I’ll share something that Jung said (paraphrase):

    “Enlightenment is not about making the light brighter, it is about bringing light into the dark.”

  7. If it is cold and dark and one persists on embracing the moment there is no harm in a bowl of homemade soup to gird oneself with.

    • Edger on December 7, 2008 at 22:41

    You can only see stars in the dark. πŸ™‚

    • kj on December 8, 2008 at 04:50

    Basement Cat summons his legions...
    more animals

  8. I’ll try to make sense and be brief.  I guess, though, I’ll ramble.

    Usually, when I present myself in writing, I am conscious of my desire to be smart, literate, kind, funny, clever.  And I’m aware that I don’t really want to write or otherwise express my deepest fears, doubts, sadness, negativity, darkness, aggressiveness.  These tend to be covert, closely held, unexpressed.  Because I’m a man, anger is ok to express; if I were a woman, not so much.

    But aside from this, I think that the greatest source of my creativity, energy, power is in the very darkness I’m so often repressing, that I’m so often cutting off at the kneees.  How odd.  How contradictory that is.  It’s so powerful that I hold it back, repress it, disown it.

    Recently, I realized, and this was quite a shock, that sometimes I really do want to be a complete as*hole and I really don’t want to stop myself from arguing and interacting before the actual, physical fight begins.  That I don’t want to rely on my control and wits to keep me from getting punched and into physical fights.  That I don’t want to turn away quite so quickly.  That I want to go a few more steps toward the explosion, toward the energy, toward the fire.

    As I write this, I realize it might sound extremely strange to you.  Is this guy saying he wants to get in more physical fights?  Well, no, I don’t, that’s not the point.  That going a few steps closer to physical confrontation is  actually an expression of my shadow, the disowned part of me, the part that requires me to be civilized, well behaved, polite, peaceful, orderly.  I’m not saying that I want to be in lots of fist fights in saloons.  I’m not saying I want to become a barbarian.  I’m just saying that I want to give myself permission to go a little bit further into my darkness.  A step or two closer.  A little bit nearer to the closed fists, the fury, the conflagrations.

    I know this may sound completely crazy.  But that little bit nearer is really important to me.  And even writing about it makes me feel incredibly powerful, and alert, and conscious.  And alive.

  9. “Origins and History of Consciousness”

               (Section III)

    It’s simple to wake from sleep with a  stranger,

    dress, go out, drink coffee,

    enter a life again.  It isn’t simple

    to wake from sleep into the neighborhood

    of one neither strange nor familiar

    whom we have chosen to trust.  Trusting, untrusting,

    we lowered ourselves into this, let ourselves

    downward hand over hand as on a rope that quivered

    over the unsearched….We did this.  Conceived

    of each other in the darkness

    which I remember as drenched in light.

                                  I want to call this, life.

    But I can’t call it life until we start to move

    beyond this secret circle of fire

    where our bodies are giant shadows flung on a wall

    where the night becomes our inner darkness, and sleeps

    like a dumb beast, head on her paws, in the corner.

    please accept this as my offering of thanks for this beautiful thread.


  10. to receive David Whyte’s newsletter. One came this morning with David writing about the “winter” of our current world economic crisis. You can read the whole thing here.

    In times of difficulty, it is tempting to think that creativity, vision and new possibilities must be put aside simply in order to survive. It is tempting, when the financial tide goes out, to act from a sense of impoverishment; it easy to feel abandoned when the source and sense of our riches are no longer in the summer air but hidden deep in a form of winter potentiality. It is always very hard to understand that the world has shifted to another axis of generosity; one not so readily recognized. When we feel bereft of one form of support we can easily forget that it is because we might be meant to put that particular form of comfort aside and look to a fiercer more internally grounded stage of our maturity, one that might emanate from a simpler but surer ground than the outer sky of mirrors and monetary instruments we might have constructed for ourselves in the so-called real world…

    In my experience the first necessity of an individual in finding this fiery, core conversation is a radical form of simplification. To get to the core conversation we have to withdraw from the edges. Whatever expenses we have been making at the margins of our lives in terms of emotions, finances or time-based commitment must be brought back to the central conversation that makes the most sense. Radical simplification often entails a seemingly ruthless withdrawal from secondary involvements, it also involves simplifying wants and needs to grant us another form of freedom not necessarily involved with the freedom to buy anything we want at any time…The practice of radical simplification, however, might not mean living in a desire-less, enlightened state, but simply catching our desires as close to the centre of our experience as possible…

    Now that our focus is shifting away from the peripheral bubble of promised riches, we are just beginning to be reminded again of the depths of poverty, both in the developing world and the United States where the social safety net for those in difficulty has been worn almost to nothing. But it is exactly this re evaluation of the periphery and the renewed emphasis on what is essential that will bring spending back from mere baubles to infrastructure and education, back from foreign adventurism to a coherent approach to the sources of terror; in the United States especially there must be an attempt at a better health care system, a more cohesive, less poisonous political conversation and a renewed relationship with a world in desperate need for it to return to its foundational ideals.

    This new faculty of valuation can be quite disturbing to way we might have priced and measured out our life in the recent, unbalanced, heady times. The road of radical simplification almost always leads to the door of the great and unwanted unknown. The door to begin with seems to open on to nothing we at first can recognize. To enter through that door we have to cultivate what Suzuki Roshi called beginner?s mind, where we stop having to know and name everything in advance and allow ourselves the satisfactions of discovery and revelation.

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