Is darkness real?
This is a question many people have, but few have ever truly contemplated. We ask questions like, “If there was a God, how could He let children starve?” If we go any further than that, we usually end up at “There is no God” or “There is true evil (devil) in this world.” Neither of those answers do it for me. They’re just too incomplete, too reductionary. So I chose the path I lead my counseling clients on when they are feeling lost: go right into the darkness.
This essay is my attempt to explain darkness, from a human, spiritual, and mental health perspective and to answer the question “Is darkness real?”
My list on what darkness is or what could be ended up being a pretty long list. It included: evil, depression, night, shadow self, suppression of the light, death, rest, despair, fear, and shame. Some of the things on this list may read as inherently “bad”…but what about the night sky? What about rest? I quite enjoy my 8 plus hours of sleep each night, and anyone in Alaska will tell you that it’s hard to sleep without blackout shades. Then again, during winter, you’ll hear many Americans protest against the long, dark days, although I’ve learned to enjoy the extra time to move slowly and reflect. So if it wasn’t for our resistance to it, would the dark be negative at all?
As I was getting ready to write this essay, a friend replied to one of my social media posts on darkness. She asked me “Do you think the depression that comes with Winter is just something to sink into?” My reply, as usual, was nuanced. I replied “I would say it depends on how we want to define “depression”. Personally, I think surrendering to the “darkness” is simply part of winter/solstice. If I had to start definine things, I’d say depression is more going into the darkness and getting stuck there, rather than being able to go in and pass through.”
My counseling background tells me that depression is a few things. It’s the suppression of emotions, it’s the suppression of one’s true nature, and it’s the loss of hope. I think we could also call it the suppression of light. Like most therapists, I won’t say there are any negative emotions, just uncomfortable ones. However, many people do perceive emotions like sadness, fear, and anger as negative, and for various reasons (that’s an essay in itself), they don’t feel them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they go away. It means the emotions get stuck in their bodies and like clouds that continue to build up, they block out any light. In the darkness of that inner cave, it’s hard to find a way out without any help, or without hope, so people get stuck. Lost. Maybe this is what it means to be a lost soul. The true enemy is not the fact everything feels dark, it’s forgetting that there is a way out.
To break from theory for a moment, I’ll add my personal experience. When I experienced depression in my teens and twenties, depression was a mixture of numbness and intense self-loathing. Sadness was there too, but the tears also told me I “wasn’t okay”, that something must be wrong with me. Since then, I’ve had many therapy sessions and done a lot of inner work on my own that was all about going into the darkness, which was really just all my unfelt emotions and negative beliefs about myself built up. Feeling the “cloud of my emotions”, and really, experiencing the storm inside of me allowed the clouds space to move. This gave a chance for the sun to come out. Now, the emotions still come, but they pass through my body more easily.
Next, there’s the theory of the shadow self. If you are a visual person, you can literally think of your own shadow as the 3pm sun hits your body and creates a shadow of your body, like a stealth body guard. Our shadow parts are “the guardians” of the parts of us we reject and that lay outside of us, unaccepted and not to be seen, unintegrated into the whole of ourselves. Or maybe more accurately, shadow parts are the black cloaks that surround the vulnerable parts of us left deep, deep inside of us, almost forgotten…and God knows, we’ve tried to forget them. Shadow parts may also be considered our inner demons, the traumas we have not yet faced. If you’re from the midwest, your shadow part might be hiding the emotional part of you, since “being tough” and not showing emotions is considered a value in that part of the country. Or, if you identify as male, it may not have been okay to show your feminine side as a child. In fact, you probably heard it was bad or weird. So you rejected that part of you. To cover up that part of you, you may have even created an alter ego wrapped in toxic masculinity. The problem is, you’re not whole without the emotional, feminine part of you. Our job is to take our shadows, or rather, the parts that they are protecting, and reintegrate them back into our whole being.
Sometime during the writing of this, I went to see a Reiki therapist to help gain insight on why my Achilles tendon wasn’t healing. Among other insights, he shared with me the vision he had of me curled up in the fetal position. I told him “I know that vision.” In my darkest moments, or what I had then considered my “weak moments”, this is the position anyone would find me in. The image had come up many times in therapy, and I had touched on it doing inner child work, but there was always some resistance. The vision goes back to me as a young girl. Feeling alone, dejected, and unloved. My own darkness: the belief that I am not loved. Logically, I know that there are lots of people who love me. Emotionally, I’ve always felt separate. In one break up I found myself saying “Why don’t you love me?”. But it was never about the guy. It was my core wound. And all the shadows around that evolved to help protect me from feeling the pain of that wound. The only cure was to go in and do the intense, intimate work of learning how to love myself, to go back to my younger self and say “I love you. I will not abandon you.” It was and is some of the hardest work I have ever done and continue to do.
But what about evil?
I’ve always considered myself the type of person that feels the immense pain of the world. I resisted much of this sensitivity through my early 20s because accepting the cruelty was too much to bear. How could such evil exist? If there was a Higher Power, how could they let this happen? So I chose ignorance. I didn’t want to think about it…so I didn’t.
Now, I’m a devout vegan. The thought of an animal ever being hurt can bring me to tears instantaneously. In saying that, my goal isn’t to turn everyone reading this into a vegan (though admittedly, that would be lovely), but to simply help others be aware of when they choose to ignore evil in any area of their life, to ignore darkness. Additionally, I stay updated enough on the news to know what’s happening, so I can help or donate when I can afford to. Yet to go deeper into the wars, to women being executed for claiming their right to exist, to the children dying of starvation…well, I could easily get lost in the darkness all over again and simply go numb to the pain. There’s no sense in any of it…because a world not filled with love is nonsensical! Here, I’m not going to claim that I know with certainty the answer as to whether or not evil exists on its own (although I try), but I can theorize that in many spaces, evil exists where love is forgotten. I hand out no excuses, but I see many of the “evil” leaders of the world trapped in a dark space where love and hope has been so far pushed away that their memory has no recollection of it ever existing. I see them as children in the fetal position, in a cave of darkness surrounded by shadows, and wrapped in a heavy blanket of shame. The shame tells a lie: “I must not be lovable”. Because love is a foreign concept, power becomes the desired feeling and monsters help block the lonely child from the fear of being unlovable. With the inner demons too much to bear, they have created a demon out of themselves. If only they knew the truth: that they are love, not their shadows.
Suicide, on the other hand, happens when a person turns their inner demons on themself. They internalize the shame until it truly becomes too much to carry. Too much to live with. Instead of attacking others, they attack themselves in the most destructive way possible. It doesn’t seem like a choice, because all they can see is the shadows inside of themselves and the shadows have blocked out the light.
In both instances, the lie is that one is unlovable. That love is too far gone to ever get it back. If only they knew…
I guess that brings us back to the beginning.
Is darkness real?
Some would argue that if we created a room without windows, only darkness would exist. I would argue back that they blocked out the light.
What about the monsters under the bed? Would they still be there if we turned on the light?
What if we’re too scared to look?
A lot of great spiritual teachers say that fear is the opposite of love, which I believe is nearly the same thing as saying that darkness is the opposite of light.
If that is true, why would anyone ever be scared of love?
This is where I usually have to bring inner child work into therapy. When I work with adults, some of them are very set in the belief that they are not good enough, that they don’t matter, that they are undeserving of love. Then I ask the question…would they ever say any of those things to a child? Could a child ever not be good enough? Could a child ever deserve the bad things happening to them? “Hell no!”, they say. But what about their 7 year old self?
Without going too deep into attachment theory and developmental research, a child’s view is “selfish”, in that it’s hard to see outside of themselves for answers. If a parent hits a child, the only reason a child can come up with is that it’s because they are bad, not because the parent has issues. And so, this little, innocent child believes they are defective. Something must be wrong with them, because in a young child’s eye, their parents know everything and are the omnipresent being in their world. Truly, children depend on their parent’s for survival, so a child must learn to do whatever they can to survive, even if it means coming up with a facade, or the belief that they don’t matter. That’s the only way they can make sense of misattuned love. The only way we can make sense of darkness.
As adults, we forget about our own light, that the power is in us, not our parents and their demons, because we’ve created our own. We’ve spent our whole life living in the shadows and allowing fear to protect us from harm. It’s hard to see any other option. (Fear truly is responsible for our primal safety. For example, if a child can tell when a parent is upset, they probably know it’s a good day to stay in their room and “hide”. Remember, basic psychology tells us that fear is our bodies’ survival response, allowing us to fight, flee, or freeze when we need to.) The fact that we’re actually free beings, that love is our core, and we’re capable of truly amazing things…well that sounds crazy.
And I, as a mental health therapist, say “then we all must become crazy.” Or maybe we’re already crazy for living in a lie for so long.
Yes, it does suck to know that we’ve all been living in one big lie our whole lives (and many will choose to reject this simply because the “truth is too much to bear”, that they didn’t have to live in so much pain for 10 ,20, 50 years…), but the sooner we accept it, the sooner we can move to toward something better.
With that, my answer.
No, I don’t believe darkness is real. It exists, yes, but only because we’ve made it up. It’s been created from our own internalized darkness, not that different from how we’ve created skyscrapers that block out magnificent views and create large shadows in the afternoon sun. Darkness is simply fear and negative, false beliefs about ourselves that, and when given the power, can lead to truly evil acts.
Even as I type my answer, my shadow, my inner critic, wants to come in and say “Who do you think you are to say you have the answer to such a big question? You, Ray, are full of it.” However, after having gone through my own darkness, another thought, a ray of hope, comes in to say “But what if it is, darkness, really all just a myth? What if you’re right? What if there is something better?”
Being my own devil’s advocate, I ask myself the next logical question: Why does darkness exist? What is its purpose?
I’ve already explained, in part, how I think darkness arises around the absence of love, or rather, the belief we are unlovable. Yet, if you believe in a Higher Power,, couldn’t that Higher Power just wipe that thought out and send us a big sticky note that reads “YOU ARE LOVED UNCONDITIONALLY”?
As someone who loves discussing purpose and meaning, all I can do here is draw on the wisdom of the existential authors that have come before me. We must each make our own meaning of the darkness.
Is it to grow? Is it because that in suffering, we find joy? Is it our challenge to return to love, and therefore deepen our understanding of it?
The answer may be individual or it may be universal. I’m not entirely sure. What really matters is that we each have an answer for ourselves, for the meaning presides over our evolution.
Which leads us to…death.
Here, I turn to the sky.
Every day, the sun sets, and night takes over. The next day, the sun rises. A new day is born.
My main personal experience with death was witnessing my older sister’s slow transition to death in her cancer-ridden body. I still consider it a blessing that she was able to make that transition at home, surrounded by her family. To me, it was the hardest, most sacred, most love-filled moment I have ever been present to. Even at her funeral, amidst tears and mascara stains, there was so much love surrounding me and my family. Today, while I do feel my sister’s presence when I’m experiencing hardship, I feel her the most when I’m in a state of bliss. When I’m in the mountains on a bluebird day with my dog by my side. During those times, I don’t need to call on her for support, she is just there.
My research, both in reading and in viewing others, as well as personal experience, also tells me that we all experience several deaths within ourselves during this lifetime. In fact, biology tells us that we literally have a new physical body every 7 years. Then, there are our own internal transitions, leaving old versions of ourselves behind and becoming someone new. Various cultural traditions have honored these changes throughout history. Poetically phrased, this is the “phoenix process” of death and rebirth within our individual human experience. Until our ultimate physical death. Then, does everything go dark?
I don’t have a therapeutic or scientific way to answer this question. Yes, the physical body most certainly dies. From there, my current perspective is that life, in all its intricacies, is just too miraculous to be limited by this physical realm. My older sister tells me there is more, and so does my inner knowing. That answer is satisfactory enough for me.
The final question: If darkness, a human creation, is present inside of ourselves and in the world, how do we overcome it?
Ignoring the darkness can’t be the answer, as it just creates more shadows. What about fighting it? If we fight anything, shouldn’t it be darkness?
Yet, fighting in itself is a dark act that creates more polarization and more darkness that can only block out the light, although it can never kill it. The energy of war can never heal.
I’m tempted to use the word “surrender”, but that word, even if I define it as “stepping into the flow of Life”, will most likely be misunderstood. Instead, I will choose to offer this word, “befriend”. Maybe a seemingly odd choice still, but remember, fear is a protection mechanism. The shadows created by fear are attempts to keep us safe from feeling the pain of core wounds, with the ultimate core wound being the false belief that we are unlovable. Personally, I can look at my own darkness and thank it for protecting me as a child and as an adult, thank it for showing me what needed healing. Of course, looking at and befriending darkness on a worldy scale is a much bigger challenge. Here, I’ll simply say that what we’ve been doing obviously hasn’t been working, and we will only find creative solutions when we release our own internal fears. So the simple answer, almost too simple to be believed, is that the more we heal our individual selves, the more we heal the collective.
And that is the final piece to this essay. The darkness of separation. Another lie we’ve believed. Why loneliness is a known factor of early mortality. You and I, or “thou”, to draw on the work of Martin Buber, may not be the same, but we are connected. We are one part of the Whole.
If darkness was created out of lies we’ve believed, it’s truth that can bring us to the light.