Into the Dark
The day after the 2018 Midterm Elections, I wrote, “Good Morning America, there’s hope for you yet.”
Emily Dickenson calls hope “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words.” Hope is the last thing in the box once Pandora lets loose all the ills of the Universe upon mankind in Greek mythology. Hope, Bill Clinton used to tell us, is the little town in Arkansas where he was from. Hope is something you cling to, much like the branch in those really annoying posters with the kittens in the 80’s that proclaimed “Hang in There!”
We all want hope. And yet we tend to find hope vaguely embarrassing until it’s actually the only thing we have left.
So while there is a lot to be hopeful for in the most recent midterm elections, we’re not quite sure what to make of it yet. The truth is, these are dark times. And they will get darker before they get brighter. We are not so far gone yet that this hope we see shining is not vaguely disturbing in its brightness. How dare it glow so unselfconsciously? We are suspicious of it, because we know it may yet disappear. Like addicts who haven’t hit bottom yet, we are unsure of ourselves and what might happen in this moment where the tide might turn, but just as easily might not.
Because one thing is sure, the darkness isn’t finished with us yet.
Samhain is over. The neighbors have put away their Halloween gear, and all the candy and spooky paraphernalia have been supplanted with Turkeys and even the dreaded Christmas decorations. The days will get shorter and shorter between now and Yule. You rise in the dark, and if you keep the kind of hours that many working Americans do, you go home in the dark. If you have a seasonal affective disorder, this is a really hard time of the year for you, but truly everyone is slowly being gripped with the undeniable and unsettling comprehension that the dark time is upon us.
Our modern western culture teaches us that we should fear darkness. And there is something vaguely primal about that. All the worst sorts of predatory creatures thrive in darkness. The ability of prehistoric man to domesticate fire was a liberation precisely because it meant we no longer had to live at the mercy of the creatures of the darkness. Darkness is vilified as being evil. This has implications for a lot of things, including modern racism.
As a pagan I have learned that going into the dark is an essential part of being a whole human.
Hopefully all of you by now have heard of the term “spiritual bypassing” and have developed a healthy suspicion of new-agey types whose response to everything seems to be flashing a fake smile and chirping “love and light!” at you. If not, use the Google and do some homework. Go ahead, I’ll wait….
Without falling too far down that rabbit hole, it should be painfully obvious that a spiritual practice that papers over the darker elements of the human experience with an insistence that we can make it all better by just being creatures of the light is disingenuous, bordering on dishonest.
What makes spiritual bypassing such a problematic practice is that it is, at bottom, denial. The reason the perpetually cheerful person is so goddamn annoying is because you know, deep down, it’s an act. Everyone feels pain. Everyone gets angry. Everyone experiences disappointment, rage, jealousy, fear and a host of other negative things. “Life is pain,” the famous line from Princess Bride goes. “Anyone who tells you different is selling you something.” If we’re being honest with ourselves and with other people, we acknowledge those negative emotions and experiences, the things that are not “love and light” but instead dark and undesirable.
One of the plays that I most vividly remember from a high school drama class was Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story,” which poses an interesting idea — that all of us are really, at bottom, only a hop, skip and a jump away from our basest instincts, so much so that even a mild mannered publishing executive on a park bench can be driven to kill someone he just met. We are civilized, capable of transcendence and moments of brilliant love and glory. But we are also animals, who when we slip the bonds of being “civilized” are capable even of murder.
I am not advocating entertaining the ugliest possibilities. There is a line past which the human animal becomes simply an animal, and a line past that one at which we become something so abased that even animals could not approach it. Certainly there are some who have no qualms about “going there,” of surrendering their humanity in order to indulge some darker instinct or need. But let me be clear: that crosses a line into evil, and is to be avoided. Rather, I speak of the places in our human selves that are filled with negative yet perfectly natural impulses, rage and pain and sadness, that lash out and even hurt people, but which do not abase our souls. It is possible to acknowledge and embrace this darkness of your human identity without losing your humanity.
Not only is such a thing possible, it is, in fact, necessary. Fearing darkness, refusing to engage it, and denying its very existence in your being, gives it a life of its own, hidden and apart from you. And that darkness, left to its own devices, out of your vision and influence, will grow in strength and take over other bits and pieces of you, until most of who you are seems to be a stranger to you. The darkness that you refuse to acknowledge will have claimed the bulk of who you are for its own. Anytime you find yourself lashing out at someone, or reacting in fear, and thinking to yourself, “I don’t know where that came from,” chances are that comes from a darkness you have not acknowledged.
So how do we engage with our darkness? And what should we be hoping for as the outcome? Some might say the goal is to eliminate it — but that’s no better than denying it. Your darkness is part of you, like your arm or your leg. You wouldn’t cut a limb off unless it was so nonfunctional and diseased that it could no longer serve its purpose, and posed a hazard to your life. And even then, you’d miss it terribly, every single day. So it is with our darkness. Our darkness is part of us, and cutting it off would not only be painful, it would leave us crippled.
Because darkness is the driver of change.
In a world where everything is love and light and happiness there is no need to alter anything. All is well. We are content, satisfied. We require nothing more. Such satisfaction craves stillness. In the moments we find ourselves truly happy we often wish that “this moment would last forever.” And it’s the dark underbelly of this kind of happiness that we know such a thing is impossible.
Pagans talk a lot about the “Wheel of the Year” and Buddhists talk about the “Wheel of Life” as ways to describe the Universe. And the essential aspect of a wheel is this: it turns, changes position. And those that do not learn how to manage with that turning will find themselves quickly run over by it.
And what is the cosmic force that cranks that wheel, that keeps things spinning? I maintain it’s the darker parts of the Universe. Because if light is happiness and satisfaction, and lacking for nothing, then darkness is dissatisfaction, the sense that something is missing or broken or insufficient. Darkness is the hunger for more and better, the desire to destroy, in part to pave the way for new creation. Without the impetus of our darker emotions — pain, desire, loneliness, need — we do not seek for anything beyond ourselves. We remain placid, content. And while that is certainly fine for a time, most humans grow suspicious of that kind of docile existence. It feels dishonest. It is not what our humanity was built for.
We are meant as humans to be engaged in this continual process of change. And the more we fear it, resist it, cling to moments of past happiness or dreams of future contentment, the more we will find that the relentless change that drives the Universe (and drives us as humans) will tear us apart. The point of love and light is not to keep change at bay, but to give it a purpose, to drive it in a positive direction, one that expands possibility and human potential. We must go into the darkness, as the source of all discontent that drives change, and using the powers of love and light, transform that energy into something positive.
It is the dark part of the year, and coincidentally, the dark part of our journey to defeating Trumpism. We are in pain, dissatisfied, afraid, because our existence as a viable democracy hangs on a knife’s edge. We know we can’t keep going like this, and we know that unless we are capable of doing the right thing, things will become even worse. We have the hunger for more and better, a desire to destroy so that we can pave the way for something better. We are faced with our own darkness, and in order to really make change, we can’t look away. We can’t pretend it’s not there. We can’t be afraid to embrace it as the driver for change. We will have to do things that will disrupt. People will be angry. And while we hope no one gets hurt, it’s not an impossibility.
But in embracing that darkness, we also need to understand the purpose of light. We need to use that love and light as the anvil on which we craft the change we want, to bend and shape the different reality that we know has to come. And the point is to craft something that is positive, something bright and good. Without light, without that glimmer of hope, without love, we fall into chaos. In pagan practice, we mark the darkness, acknowledge it. But we know that light is never far away. The wheel turns, and the light WILL return. And we must be prepared, in the dark time, to use even the smallest of lights, the glimmers of hope, to beat the dark into a useful shape, something good that elevates our community and feeds our humanity.
Things ARE going to get worse before they get better. And yeah, that’s scary to think about. But we have to jump into that process and be game for the darkness, the need to make change. You can dance on the wheel or get ground up by it. But you’ll never stop it from turning.