It’s not even Halloween but I had this thought …
I participated in a song circle the other day. A woman shared a song that she told us she had sung to her kids when they were little. It was a song about why they shouldn’t be afraid of the dark. In the song, she told them that the darkness is their mother, they come from the dark, and the dark is safe and gentle and nurturing like a mother. So the dark isn’t scary, and neither is sleep.
But I’ve been working lately (in my professional capacity as a ghostwriter) with a Jungian psychiatrist who has an awful lot to say about what “populates” the dark, the unfathomably vast and deep inner universe of archetypes and images and impulses that we cannot see but that run our lives.
Of course, it’s always helpful (or usually helpful, I should say – I gotta be careful) to bring unconscious material into consciousness, to shine light on what’s been hidden. In this way, we can integrate it, we can negotiate with it, we can even change it. We are no longer entirely in its power.
That said, you never get to the bottom of the darkness. Not even remotely close.
And there are monsters there. REAL monsters – ones you don’t want to see because they’re too huge and monstrous to be consciously assimilated.
Now, some rational people might point out that there are two distinct realms of darkness – the “inner” darkness of the unconscious psyche (where monsters certainly abide), and the “outer” darkness that is the mystery of all that lies beyond the grave – and before conception.
But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to “conflate” these two dimensions into a single phenomenon. I don’t believe they are truly separate. I suspect we only perceive them as separate through the filter of our limited concepts of “within” and “without.”
So my thought is this: Maybe the reason kids – especially small ones – are scared of the dark is that they REMEMBER it!
Yes, the darkness is our source. We do not understand the mystery from whence we emerge into this life.
But babies and small children were there more recently – and it terrifies them.
So, just saying, maybe, in their “childlike” fear, they simply know something we don’t, or have some vague intuitive knowledge of something we adults have succeeded in forgetting.
And songs like the one that nice lady shared in the circle, those are just fantasies born of light, flimsy labels placed against the infinite, implacable boundary of darkness, so that we might view the label rather than the wall of darkness, and feel safe.
We create things in light and make up names for them. “Darkness” is one of the names. We can take a set of concepts and images (like “Mother”) and call them “Darkness,” but that doesn’t mean we know Darkness, any more than naming our cat “Abraham Lincoln” signifies that we have a familiar acquaintanceship with the 16th president of the United States.
So what we’re teaching our little ones, when we sing them bedtime songs like the one I heard in the circle, is simply how to look away from the darkness. How to pretend it doesn’t really exist as it is. That’s what human adults must do, and good parents model this and teach their children how to do it too.
But let’s be clear. We’re the ones who are living in fantasy, not the small children.
I love the topic of darkness, both psycho-spiritual and physical. When I lived in Mexico, we didn’t have electricity in our house; we used candles and kerosene lanterns for light. Many homes did not have power, and even in those that did, the power frequently went down, so darkness was a necessary fact of life. During that two years or so, living my nights in the light of flickering flames that left everything beyond a radius of a few feet mostly in darkness led me to confront my own fears and feelings about literal darkness.
One thing that occurred to me then is that our forebears lived with darkness as a fact of life, probably co-equal to light. I found that darkness, flickering flame, and shadow confer different properties on interior furniture and on rooms. Take, for example, ornately shaped, carved, textured wood furniture, which I’d always thought hideous. It never occurred to me that the hideousness was partially a product of the quality of light I was used to. When seen in near-darkness, or a gentle glow, this same ugly furniture could assume a shadowy and mysterious sense of life and “being,” even a playfulness that was vivid and evocative. It’s still not my favorite art form, but I understood that designers and artisans of centuries past were creating specifically in and for flame-lit environments—and it’s a whole different thing!
Outside, too, the world is different when we’re more in tune with nature’s nightly darkness. Ultimately we found that we seldom used flashlights or even a lamp outside at night as we walked the unlighted dirt roads and paths of our little neighborhood, even crossing the small river on wobbly stones without any additional illumination. We could see better than we thought, and somehow intuit the rest.
I feel that our modern Western attitudes towards darkness are informed by the relentless illumination we are all now accustomed to. It occurs to me that Jung himself, born in 1875, may have lived at least part of his childhood without gas or electric light, though I don’t know.
I agree with you that the anodyne “darkness is our friend” thing can be annoying. But I think part (though surely not all) of what freaks us out about the dark is that, thanks to the conveniences of modern life, we no longer routinely inhabit it—or even the fringes of it.
Another thought: If you’re out at night in natural light, or dark, the character and degree of the darkness that you experience changes from night to night with the moon, the stars, the cloud cover, etc., so natural dark isn’t just one thing—any more than light is.