Embracing the Darkness

Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton, December 14, 2014

In the 2001 Pixar animated movie Monsters Inc. we were introduced to another world populated by monsters.  They were loveable and furry and sometimes silly, but still…monsters.  The electrical power of that land was fuelled by the screams of terrified children.

Each work day the creatures of the power company passed through interdimensional portals into the closets of sleeping children and then scared the bejeezus out of them capturing the energy of their screams.

 The premise of the film was simple and resonant, for what child has not feared the terrors of the darkness?  How many of us slept with a nightlight for some or all of our childhoods?  How many of us make sure there is still some light on somewhere when we sleep?  For that matter what adult has not felt the creeps at least sometimes long after the sun has set?

Even though my daughters are 10 and 11, I am still asked now and then to check under the bed and in the closet, and I well recall asking my Dad to do the same after our nightly reading sessions came to a close.

It’s not a surprise, really.  Some say it’s in our nature to fear the dark.

Turning to the quick source of all wisdom, Wikipedia I found this entry:

The fear of the dark is a common fear or phobia among children and, to a varying degree, of adults. Fear of the dark is usually not fear of darkness itself, but fear of possible or imagined dangers concealed by darkness.[1] Some degree of fear of the dark is natural, especially as a phase of child development.[2] Most observers report that fear of the dark seldom appears before the age of 2.[3] 

When fear of the dark reaches a degree that is severe enough to be considered pathological, it is sometimes called achluophobia.

Some researchers, beginning with Sigmund Freud, consider the fear of the dark as a manifestation of separation anxiety disorder.[4]

Separation anxiety…I expect that’s a good explanation, but I suspect – completely unscientifically – that there is something very primordial in our fear of the dark.  Out there, in the darkness beyond our campfire, the dangers lurk.  Even the Wikipedia entry acknowledges: Fear of the dark is usually not fear of darkness itself, but fear of possible or imagined dangers concealed by darkness. 

Predators stalk the night, and if we venture into it we go forth missing the strength of one of our most powerful senses – our vision.  Sure, we might hear the rustle of leaves and crack of branches, we might smell danger, but when it comes to fleeing, the sighted among us need to see the path or we’re in big trouble.

There is an old saying: what we don’t know can’t hurt us.  But somewhere deep inside we believe that what we can’t see can indeed hurt us.

Whether it’s true or not,  rational or not, the light has always been seen as a safety measure.  It’s no accident that in our church – one that emphasizes community and safety, we gather around the chalice light, symbolic of warmth, comfort and the circle of affection.  It is the campfire that gives us a feeling of security.

Yet the night is not all bad.  Here in our urban world where darkness is seldom if ever total, for many the night is the time to party.  The cover of night gives us a measure of anonymity and that can bring a sense of freedom.  It’s no surprise that in many films, plays and books, scenes of hedonism and abandon take place in the dark.  Perhaps people get up to mischief during the daytime during Mardi Gras, but I can’t recall an image or a parade for that festival that did not take place at night.

I don’t know if it was youthful testosterone or perhaps just having better than average night vision, but as a young man I loved the dark- the cover of night.  As a big man who always felt so very visible and identifiable in daylight, the dark felt like a place where I was free of my body, where I was less recognizable and more anonymous.  It’s not that I ever got up to anything nefarious, it just let me feel more free.

But now we are in the dark time of the year.  For many of us that is not comforting.  It can be draining.  The dark of the year carries a whole different meaning with a power all of its own.  November and December are the months of dying.  The leaves have tumbled and been raked, the grass has browned, the snow has fallen, the cold settles into bones.  Humans tend to want to slow down,  hibernate and eat a lot more.  Bikes get put away, the hiking trails and even sidewalks are emptier.  When we do go outside it’s more often for a purpose now, not just because it’s nice to be outside.

The ever-earlier sunset seems to remind us of the darkness of oblivion, that final closing of the eyes as we will settle into death.  It’s a different kind of frightening – not the shock of the monsters in the closet, but the gentle and perhaps grief-tinged resignation of acknowledging our own mortality.

Even our civic leaders have come to recognize the oppressiveness of winter darkness.  In recent years they have struggled mightily and well to make Edmonton into a Winter City with outdoor festivals of many kinds.  Some have worked better than others and that’s good.  This year they are asking us to take down our outdoor Santas and reindeer in January, but leave up the non-festival coloured lights through until the beginning of March.

I like that idea and plan to do so.  I have always been steadfast in not turning on my outdoor lights until December 1.  I want to hold off until I need them most.  I want to light up as a celebration of getting past November! So, yeah, I am going to brighten the wintry streets around my house and encourage you to do the same.  Let’s not let the darkness triumph.

In the coming days many will celebrate the Solstice.  In modern day pagan celebrations marking the event, like the wonderful Westwood Sharing the Light Service at City Hall next Sunday, the language is often triumphal.  The ancient stories tell of battles between light and dark, of the birth of a new sun god who begins to turn the tide at solstice and triumphs over the god of darkness.

They are good stories.  They explained a lot for people who did not know about elliptical orbits and the balancing of the poles.  Building on the intrinsic fear of the dark, the ancients cast the darkness as evil.

Jacqui James, the author of our reading and by the way, the UUA staff person who devoted years of her life bringing our grey hymnbook into being, reminds us of the not so subtle negative effects of letting our fear of the dark define us and our use of imagery.

We shape language and we are shaped by it. In our culture, white is esteemed. It is heavenly, sunlike, clean, pure, immaculate, innocent, and beautiful. At the same time, black is evil, wicked, gloomy, depressing, angry, sullen. Ascribing negative and positive values to black and white enhances the institutionalization of this culture’s racism.

We don’t need a deeply scientific survey to know this is true.  All we need do is to look at the riots in Ferguson and the protests in New York.  Read any article on the number of times police have killed unarmed black men in the U.S. and to a lesser degree in Canada and you’ll know that this bias, this prejudice runs very deep.  Heck, even NFL football players have taken to running on the field with their hands up in the universal sign of “Don’t shoot!”

As Unitarian Universalists who try to pay attention to the privilege that whiteness gives the majority of us, you think we would do a better job of noticing these things.  After all we love words.  We love to parse words, to sip them like fine wine…especially the ministers, anyway.  As a group, we use words as our craft and we think we choose them with care.

And yet…I found Jacqui’s reading on the American Unitarian Universalist Association website called the Worship Web.  It contains hundreds of readings, sermons etc.  It has a searchable index.  I knew of Jacqui’s reading – she wrote over 20 years ago, and knew I could search it.  I typed in the word ‘dark’.  About 75 readings, chalice lightings, opening and closing words popped up.

Only Jacqui’s framed the darkness in positive terms.  A few others made a passing acknowledgement to the gifts of darkness, but mostly while encouraging the embracing of the light.  I would have thought there would be more.  But then we all grew up at least a little afraid of the dark.

So in these last few days before the solstice, perhaps we would be wise to heed Jacqui’s words:

Welcome darkness. Don’t be afraid of it or deny it. Darkness brings relief from the blinding sun, from scorching heat, from exhausting labor. Night signals permission to rest, to be with our loved ones, to conceive new life, to search our hearts, to remember our dreams. The dark of winter is a time of hibernation. Seeds grow in the dark, fertile earth.

And I would add, so did we in the wombs of our mothers.  Let us take the time to appreciate the gifts of the darkness, my friends.  Let us enjoy the candle flame and the coloured lights, but let us notice that they do not banish the dark.  In fact without the embrace of the dark, we would never notice them or see their beauty in such depth.  The twinkling lights need the dark, just as the stars need the dark.  It is the canvass for their art.

And it is the place where we can rest and hibernate and renew ourselves for the coming year.  People get so busy with Christmas preparations and often speak of their stress.  Perhaps we need to take a little time to breathe in the comforting darkness, to listen to its gentle prodding to rest a bit more, to sleep a little longer, or at least curl up in bed with good book a little more often.  This is the time when night rules, perhaps a time to give it proper deference and listen to its gentle whispers.

And if we do, the monsters will stay in the closet…or at least we can learn to fear them less and perhaps like little Boo in Monsters Inc. even make friends with them.