This can be a challenging time of year for folks in the Northern Hemisphere. We’re approaching the darkest day of the year. More of the day is in darkness than in light now. That can be unnerving.
Especially since we live in a culture that fights the darkness. Our cities, where most of us live, are always lit up. When I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s impossible to determine the time without checking the clock.
We even medicate away mild depressions. Some psychiatrists and mental health professionals regard a few weeks of sadness, hopelessness, and disinterest in life as symptomatic of clinical depression. We are expected to be eternally cheerful. Nothing against cheerfulness – I’m pretty cheerful myself – and nothing against medications that ensure a quality of life that might otherwise be impossible for those who suffer from serious mental illness. But I can’t help but feel that we deny ourselves important spiritual and creative nourishment when we succumb to “find your happy place” messages and when we value the bright lights of confidence and certainty to the exclusion of the shadow states of doubt, confusion, and vulnerability.
Last week, I attended a candlelight ceremony put on by The Compassionate Friends, for parents whose children had died – whether by illness, accident, or any other means. The purpose of the ceremony was to ease the hearts of those who have suffered from this terrible loss – at Christmastime, when being in a happy perfect family is all but mandatory. Siblings are also invited to attend and so I lit a candle for my brother, Steve, who died by suicide six years ago, and for my twin sisters, Joan and Joyce, who died shortly after their premature birth a year after me, because the hospital in which they were born lacked incubators. It was humbling to be in the company of these brave parents, witnessing them share their tears from having lost what had been most precious to them. Lighting their candles to affirm their love, their courage, and their faith.
I woke up the next day in a dark despairing place, but I took courage from those parents and lit a candle, took out my journal, and wrote about how I was feeling. At such times, I often dialogue with a source of Inner Wisdom; this time the voice invited me to take a number of deep breaths and “let the darkness embrace you. Don’t fight against it.” I did that and I felt better. Not great, but better. Embracing the darkness helped me to see the source of the feelings, to unearth some irrational self-judgment, and to replace it with thoughts grounded in reality.
After that, I began working on my book and found that I was stuck – unable to write a single word. A scary state for a writer, but rather than give up, turn on the radio, and move on to a project for a client, I heeded the message of Inner Wisdom once again: “Just breathe, and light another candle. If you don’t write another word for the remaining hour, that’s alright. Just let go. If something comes to you, write it down.”
I did just that. After a few minutes of breathing into the silence, I had a realization that not only served my book but also addressed the state I had woken up with, in which I had felt alone in my discouragement: “There is no separation between the light and the dark. They are one and the same. Lighting a candle is an affirmation of that lack of separation.”
After that I was able to write and felt that deep resonance with darkness that, in a strange way, feels like home, as suggested by Theodore Roethke in his poem, In A Dark Time:
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood”
Perhaps this can be a helpful message in this time of the solstice when the darkness is most with us.