To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
— To Know the Dark by Wendell Berry
“I was in the dark.” That phrase can evoke some pretty strong emotions. Emotions of emptiness and hopelessness, of blindness and fear. And why not? Us humans face dark places, dark situations, in our lives on a regular basis. Darkness can be scary. And what remedies this darkness? Light. Seeing the light. Shedding light.
But when it comes to actual physical darkness and light. Well, I’m a fan of them both.
It wasn’t always this way. As a kid I was afraid of the dark. My imagination worked overtime at night, turning ordinary noises and shadows into things surreal and ominous. A night light was my friend.
My first experience with “total darkness” happened on my first wilderness camping trip. I was in my late twenties when an outdoorsy friend of mine invited me on a three-day adventure into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. We lucked out with ideal weather; sunny skies, not too hot, calm waters for paddling a canoe. I loved it. Until that first dark night.
There wasn’t even a moon. Yes, I had a flashlight that provided a small circle of light in front of me. But what about all the darkness beyond that small circle? While my friend crashed around in the woods gathering wood for a fire, not caring about the weird noises and what might attack him in the dark, I sat in one place, pretty freaked out. Every now and then my friend would stop moving and I wouldn’t know where he was so I’d call out “where are you now?!” and he’d answer “over here, big chicken.” It was so dark I could barely see my hand inches from my face.
And the flashlight didn’t really help me feel less afraid. Having that bright light in my eyes actually made the darkness seem darker. Shutting off the light gave my eyes a chance to adjust and I found I could see … better. I recall making myself take deep breaths and focus calmly on what I could hear and what I could see.
What I could see was stars. An incredibly beautiful sky full of them. I’d seen stars before, obviously, but not so brightly. The complete lack of light pollution made the sky surreal – but not ominous. That first night I was still grateful for the campfire and when I had to wander into the woods to go potty, my flashlight. But something changed in me and I started to crave what I could see in that darkness.
In fact, the very next night we opted to not have a campfire so we could see the sky better. I tried not to use my flashlight. Relied on my “night vision” to get me around our camp site. And in the dark, I found this lovely peace and quiet I’d never before experienced.
Humans need darkness. When we don’t get adequate amounts of time in the dark, it messes with our natural circadian rhythms (it’s scientific). All those little lights on our electronic devices, the street lights coming through the window, all those ways we try to eliminate total darkness disrupt a natural balance between dark and light. Naturally dark environments are actually an important resource all living things need to function well.
I know, I know. It’s not easy to balance light and dark here in Alaska. We live in a place where there are excessive amounts of each. But it’s worth it to find what is good about each and appreciate and be thankful for what we find.
That appreciation gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I was in the dark.”
• Becky Corson is a member of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church. “Living Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.