In many spiritual traditions, God is seen as the source of light, banishing the darkness and bringing hope. Darkness is seen as the enemy, a terrifying place where we are out of control of our own lives and cannot see the way ahead.
It wasn’t always this way. Many of the world’s earliest religions celebrated the darkness. As Carol P. Christ explains in her book Rebirth of the Goddess, the light has come to symbolize patriarchal power and a masculine god, “a light shining in the darkness,” as she phrases it, and our reverence for the goddess has been lost with our fear of the dark. Goddess traditions, on the other hand, honor the darkness, revering it as “a source and symbol of deep wisdom.”
The English language reflects this bias against darkness, tending to associate it metaphorically with negative emotions, such as when we “go to a dark place” or with ignorance, as when we are “in the dark” about something. We try to stay buoyed up in the land of smiling happy people: “enlightened” when we learn something new, “bright” when we are intelligent, and we tell each other to “lighten up” when things get too serious. We’ve lost our honor for our darkest places.
In the dark, we can’t rely on our sense of sight to tell us what’s ahead. We have instead feel and listen carefully to what’s around us. The world comes much closer, into the here and now rather than where we are going next. A part of being “in the dark” literally and metaphorically is not knowing what’s coming next, not having a clear vision for which direction we should go. Darkness asks us to slow down. Listen. Feel for what’s around us. Tap into our bodies. We can make better decisions about the future when we can understand the present.
Emotional darkness, too, can be a deep source of wisdom. When we are feeling hurt or broken down by life, it’s not always the wisest thing to try to scramble over our feelings and try to jump back to the light. We may need to pause and feel that something we have been doing is not working for us anymore, or that there is a place in us that yearns for something much more than what we have. Darkness can point us to our deepest desires, and those desires can be destabilizing. They might demand that we change the things in our lives that give us a sense of security or safety. Learning to sit in the darkness takes courage; it teaches us that we are brave enough to face almost anything.
Our darkness has value. Whether we are brokenhearted, jobless, fearful, or depressed, the darkness asks us to pause and listen to what our bodies may be trying to tell us. We can’t stay here forever, of course; in all things there must be a balance of light and dark, masculine and feminine, joy and sadness, questions and answers. Light and darkness are, after all, aspects of the same thing. Deep joy has a measure of pain at its heart. Despair is trying to teach us to change. As the poet Rilke has written,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”