Darkness and Light
December 29, 2021
Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel, Unsplash
Winter in the northern hemisphere is a time of darkness. The days grow shorter until the winter solstice on December 21. The skies are often gray, and we tend to feel less energetic and spend less time outside. It’s easy to slip into a gloomy mood. Many of us think of long, sunny days as easier and of summer as a happy time of year. Our associations with darkness tend to be negative—evil, frightening, dangerous—and we seem to want to avoid it or even eliminate it. With the rise of electric lighting, we have driven back the darkness to such an extent that light pollution is having a negative impact on wildlife and nature and, I believe, on us as well. Though most humans seem to prefer the light, we need darkness too. Darkness invites us to slow down, to rest, and to be humble.
At 6.15 in the morning of this year’s shortest day I was awakened by a concert of owls somewhere near our house—a passionate 15-minute duet of two adults, followed by vocal experimentation or perhaps commentary by their young. It was pitch black and would remain so for nearly two more hours. When the owls fell silent, the stillness and darkness were so intense that it seemed that light and sound had been swallowed up by the earth. I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of peace and calm. The evening before I had finished reading the wonderful book, Wintering, by Katherine May, which eloquently urges us to honor and embrace the dark and challenging moments in our lives rather than push them away. Katherine May frequently describes experiences as “liminal”, a tantalizing word that means being “on the threshold” or an in-between or transitional state. These are moments in our lives that invite us to slow down and pay attention; they are often moments of transformation, when something new wants to emerge. I decided to indulge myself in exploring the space between sleep and wakefulness by lingering in bed instead of jumping into my daily activities.
Visual memories from a short visit to Stockholm in mid-December about ten years ago popped into my head. After the sun went down in mid-afternoon on my first day there, I was impressed by how the darkness was deliberately enhanced—even celebrated—rather than banished by the subtle lighting. An outdoor Christmas market I visited was so dimly lit that I had to make an effort to see the wares on display. What a contrast to Christmas markets in other places that tend to be gaudily lit and bombard the senses. Many restaurants and cafes had torches outside rather than glaring electric lights and were very softly lit inside, often only with candles. Once I adjusted to this embracing of winter darkness indoors and outdoors—by turning off my automatic negative judgement of everything being “poorly lit” and slowing my pace—I found it enchanting. I became more aware of both the intensity of the darkness and the warmth of the light. I felt more present, and all of my senses were sharpened. I had literally become more open to my surroundings and what I was experiencing, perhaps because I felt a tiny bit less in control.
The play of darkness and light I experienced in Stockholm reminded me of paintings I had seen in art history class and museums that used the technique of chiaroscuro and tenebrism. The Italian word chiaroscuro literally means “light/clear-dark/obscure” and is used to describe the tonal contrasts in paintings that create a sense of volume and three-dimensionality. Tenebrism comes from the Italian word “tenebroso”, which means darkened and obscuring. Also called dramatic illumination, the technique employs strong, even violent contrasts of light and dark, with dark becoming the dominating feature of the image. The painters Rembrandt and Caravaggio are particularly known for the dramatic and emotional effects they achieved with extreme contrast of light and dark. Paintings using these techniques grab our attention and engage us viscerally.
During the daylight hours in wintry Stockholm, between about 9am and 3pm, I was keenly aware of the brightness and the orange tinge of the sunlight, which felt warm despite the cold temperature. Before the trip I thought “what a bummer that my first trip to Sweden is during the dark days of year”, clearly worrying that it might feel dreary or oppressive. The opposite was true: the contrast of light and dark made me feel vibrant.
One of my daughter’s favorite childhood stories was “The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark” by Jill Tomlinson. We had the audio version and listened to it so often that all three of us could recite parts of it by heart. Plop is a young barn owl who finds the dark “nasty” and refuses to go hunting with his parents, exasperating and exhausting them. His mother tells him that he is only afraid of the dark because he doesn’t know about it and encourages him to go out and ask people about the dark. In each of the seven chapters of the story, Plop learns something new about the dark: dark is exciting, kind, fun, necessary, fascinating, wonderful, and beautiful. By the end he is persuaded that the dark has its advantages and is able to hunt for himself.
We humans also often regard what we do not know as nasty or threatening and, like Plop, need to counteract that inclination to reject with a deliberate effort to be with it, learn more about it, understand it and grow from it. The human race is facing many challenges today—the pandemic, climate change and social and economic inequality among them—that represent our darkness. Rather than denying these challenges or turning our attention away, we need to attend to them and find a way forward, perhaps by transforming ourselves and our lifestyle. We are inclined to want life to always be bright, easy, positive and painless, but darkness is part of our reality. Without the dark, we cannot truly appreciate the light.