Lights out: surrendering to the dark

by Elizabeth Cunningham

Since Halloween, for the zealous, and since the day after Thanksgiving for just about everyone else, we’ve been turning on the lights. We’ve been beating back darkness, depression, fear, and gloom with commercial clamor and the added stress of determined holiday cheer.

What if we didn’t? Yes, I know the traditions of this season have ancient roots and almost all cultures sufficiently north of the equator have held feasts and revels and called for the sun’s return as or more vociferously than we do. I don’t want to write a blog about old customs: good, modern customs: crass or compromised. No. I want to talk about the dark, our fear of it. I want to talk about the dark. Our hidden longing for it.

For ten years, I was a Quaker and continue to have great respect for The Religious Society of Friends. During that time I did sometimes feel oppressed by Friends frequent references to the Light, their metaphor of choice, the ocean of Light that covered the ocean of Darkness–darkness being the force that light invariably vanquished. Quakers are by no means the only people who make this ubiquitous equation. Who hasn’t talked about “dark emotions” or used the expression “going over to the dark side.” But consider:

The womb is dark; the earth where the seed gestates is dark; the ocean where all life began is dark; the night which gives us the map of the stars is dark; corn ripens in the dark. Nor is light always benign; there is the naked light bulb of interrogation, the too much light that withers crops, the light of a bomb exploding. When we equate darkness with evil and light with good, are we not, however unintentionally, implying that light-skinned people are superior to dark-skinned people? Could we find another metaphor? Or use this one differently?

I am now an interfaith minister and a pagan with Christian roots. The Church’s liturgical year and the pagan year, indeed the liturgial year in most religions are not so different. All of them had their origins in observing and aligning with the journeys of the sun and the moon, the changing seasons. For the past seven years I have also been studying tai chi, whose symbol is the dark and the light in dynamic balance, each one holding the seed of the other.

In the Northern hemisphere it’s the nadir of the dark time. Why not surrender to the dark? I like holiday lights as well as anyone, because they are tiny in night’s vastness, light seeds. All I am saying is: sometimes just let the dark be dark, let the night be silent. Turn out all the lights and sit in the dark. Inside darkness. Take a bath in the dark. Turn out the outside lights and look at the stars. Parties can be fun. But stay in sometimes. In the dark. Inside the restorative, generative dark.

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Elizabeth Cunningham December 15, 2009 - 10:54 pm

I would like to add that the dark time is story time. That's what long nights are for. It is the season of the bard.

I will be back with more stories soon!


Anonymous December 16, 2009 - 12:15 am

Wow, I love this Elizabeth. Thank you!

faerian December 16, 2009 - 12:42 am

well well…this is an interesting time to ponder this for me – we in the southern hemisphere are coming up to our longest day- and due to the light at present we have 6 minutes outside before (unprotected) we get sunburned (we have a burn time index announced with the weather for each city)
i have also just come back from a homebirth group- discussing how birth is the penultimate experience of walking the line between life and death – and birthing women instinctively seek the dark (not that they get much of a chance for that in a hospital but lets not go there now!)… i also reflect that i have always had a darkness inside of me which i spent the first half of my life running from and now which i find i am making friends with… Jung said without a shadow one has no weight… and i agree…
great blog – thankyou Elizabeth!

~ December 16, 2009 - 1:28 pm

When a dark is so alone
know darkness as a mirror
lean the falling onto the oars,
pull into the wave's center
and seal into sufficiency

Imogenhh December 16, 2009 - 1:59 pm

Once again, Elizabeth, what you've written mirrors some of my own favorite thoughts. I was up in the middle of the night the other night. Through bare branches I could see the stars, so sharply bright they looked violent — Orion dragging Sirius along the horizon, as if into a high wind — Taurus charging straight for us. Thrillingly frightening! There would be no dark, nor light, if each did not love the other. We need to learn to love it all. Thank you, and Good Yule — Imogen

Elizabeth Cunningham December 16, 2009 - 3:40 pm

Thank you for your beautiful, thoughtful comments. I love how you see the sky, Imogen, how alive it is to you and how you evoke it for us. A, your poem blew me away. I would love to read more. Faerian, I love the news from you and from New Zealand and how we are holding the light and dark in our opposite places. Seeker, it is always wonderful to know you are there and reading. Thank you all!

Unknown December 16, 2009 - 4:54 pm

I'd like to add a practical point: if we honor the dark more, and turn off the lights, we contribute less to global warming/climate change. That's a good thing.

I'd also like to put in a plug for reducing light pollution, which makes it so difficult to see the stars. Think of our ancestors in the forests and plains at night: think of what they saw when they looked skyward. No wonder they were awed! We should be, too, but with all the lights we puny humans make to banish darkness, that awe–or reverence for the universe–is diminished, if not lost.

Great blog!

Anonymous December 19, 2009 - 10:13 pm

Splendid blog, and a timely reminder of the nourishing power of Dark. Thank you, dear Elizabeth!

Brooke December 23, 2009 - 12:21 am

So thankful to come across your beautiful rich writing. Recently, Maeve signaled to me to pick her up off of a library shelf, and I have been savoring every word of her journey for some time now, finding it somehow connected to my own–one of those beautiful syncronicities… Thank you–and now this beautiful blog!? Thank you for your courage to honor your creative self, and for your stamp of authenticity. Such a powerful post.


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