We have a distinct cultural bias that says light is good and dark is bad. This belief likely goes back to our pre-history, before we has electric lights, gas lights, or even fire. Things go "bump" in the night, things that might want to eat us. In the Judeo-Christian model, God said, "Let there be light," and it was good.
In spirituality, light is Spirit and darkness is to be overcome. Even in psychology, we want to shine the light of consciousness into the dark corners of the mind.
The Toronto Star recently ran an article that looks at this belief in light of the "The Earth Hour" that many participated in at the end of last month.
Surely Darkness Can't Be Good
Light is where life begins. It is what we first encounter when emerging from the womb, and it is the basis, in Judeo-Christian cosmology, of earthly creation: From Genesis Chapter One, Verse Three: "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light."
While these are the words of the Abrahamic God, the association with light and life is universal to the human spiritual experience. Light is the symbol of the activated spirit, and it is what fills the willing soul. Light is the substance of which the spirit is made.
Welcome, therefore, to what might be a shiny, new, 21st-century conundrum. In dimming our lights are we acting contrary to deeply rooted spiritual and natural inclinations? Is it asking us to put moral responsibility before The Word?
By turning off their lights this evening, people around the world will be making a stand for nature – and going against their own. To our species, light is more than a way to see. As Genesis, among many other sacred texts insists, it is life itself.
But this is exactly why no other environmentally friendly gesture can have either the same symbolic or practical impact. The Earth Hour campaign compels us to question the impact of one of our defining impulses as human beings: to seek light and live in it. To flick the switch off after dark is a profoundly counterintuitive act. It is also a sacrifice greater than most of us realize.
I was a night-light kid. No sleeping was possible in total darkness, and no doors could be completely closed or hall fixtures turned off. Darkness was for fearing.
It may be the most common and natural of human fears. Despite the fact that we are wombed in darkness, that we live with it every day, and that we need it to restore our energy and settle our thoughts, on the most primal level we associate it with oblivion. Darkness is the place where death lurks. (Near-death experiences are rife with reports of white light – surely a source of comfort to many.)
In our cultural imagination, darkness is home to evil. Vampires, who are destroyed by light, only venture out beneath the shadow of the moon. Predatory animals do their killing at night. Ghosts walk. Crime thrives. Rats scuttle. People seem to be at their animal worst when deprived of sunlight – and most prone to the allure of "the dark side." As it says in John, Chapter Three, Verse 19: "Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil."
It is in the absence of light that people can indulge their most dangerous impulses. This is partly because evil deeds are more easily performed under the cloak of darkness, but also because it is through light that we are able to see not only with our eyes but our hearts.
We need light to care, to extinguish those hidden parts of our nature that cannot survive the stark light of day. In light we cannot be alone – and that undercuts both the practice of evil and the drift into loneliness. How many movies have signalled the departure of horror and evil with the arrival of dawn? How many "dark nights of the soul" dissipated by "the dawn's early light?"
There's a slogan you'll find in some substance recovery programs, and it neatly captures the idea of addiction as a form of manageable darkness: "Life begins every morning." There's no horizon without the light to see it.
Of all the higher life forms, humans are among the most visually oriented. The eyes may be the windows to the soul, but they are also the engines that tend to drive most of our senses: they tell us what to touch, influence what we eat and whom we love, and are fundamental to our concepts of beauty and ugliness. (And good and evil, right and wrong, living and dead.)
When we wake with the light – as our pretechnological organism is engineered to do – we are ready to engage with the world on our biological terms: sight leading us through our days and lives, distinguishing the familiar from unfamiliar, navigating us the world of space and objects. Babies reach instinctively toward light and death is near universally configured as a dimming. (Dylan Thomas: "Rage, rage against the dying of the light.")
Certainly this has crucially influenced our development as spiritual creatures: It is in the imagining of afterlifes that we can conceive of light beyond the darkness of death. Eternal darkness is not for us. To enter blackness is like surrendering to sleep. Without the promise of light at the end the tunnel, we might never enter.
If light is life, it is by definition good. We speak of illumination, of enlightenment and of dawning as ways of describing our highest purposes. "I am the light of the world," said Jesus by way of offering the path to grace. "God is light," according to the Bible, "and in him is no darkness at all." Without light there is no perception of beauty, no purpose for art, no possibility of attaining a life of significance or meaning.
Religion, which is our organized means of striving for spiritual fulfilment, has been in the lighting business for centuries, but so has art: a transcendent human activity that not only requires light for its appreciation but has been historically engaged with light as a medium.
One cannot read without it or find one's instrument to play. Darkness – the void – is the realm without God, but it is also a world without art. In darkness, we are denied ourselves. When we do not know, we are "in the dark."
As deeply embedded as our need for light is, the current concern with global energy consumption finds itself up against more than habit, indifference or complacency. When environmental consciousness asks us to turn down the lights and sit in the dark, even if only for an hour, another form of consciousness naturally balks.After all, how could light, the very thing that provides us with all our best and most hopeful ideas about ourselves, also pose a problem to the future of our existence? But that's the way we must learn to think if we are to engage with the Earth Hour idea of salvaging our future. This is not to suggest that we embrace the darkness or rethink our relationship to it. We come to our veneration of light spiritually, biologically and culturally, and it is nothing short of our humanity that needs it for nourishment and inspiration. Light is what we are. To compel us to live with less of it now requires a conviction that we're working toward a brighter future. But we'll enter any tunnel if we know there's light at the end.
Strangely, or maybe not so much to those who know me, I am a HUGE fan of darkness. I need a totally dark room to sleep. I detest the perpetually sunny days here in Tucson. I loved the gray cloudy days in Seattle. When I was younger, I was a night person and would rather sleep during daylight hours.
Even in the realm of personal growth and spirituality, I am a strong advocate for honoring the darknesses within. As long as there is consciousness, there will be shadows, and we should honor them even as we seek to explore them.
If there is some symbolic element in turning off our lights in the evening, I like it. We need to be more comfortable with darkness -- both in the world and within ourselves. If we cannot embrace our own internal darkness -- as individuals and as a culture -- we are bound to project it onto others and imbue them with the qualities of fear and evil so many people associate with darkness. Owning the darkness within and without can ameliorate that tendency.