Ever experience total darkness? The kind where you literally can’t see your hand in front of your face? I’ve had experiences like that—in remote settings in another country, the inside of a cave and in my own home during a widespread power outage. I remember realizing that I couldn’t rely on my otherwise dependable eyes to help me determine where I was. Until the momentary panic dissolved, I felt defenseless, disoriented and distrustful of my other senses. Out of fear of the unknown, I didn’t want to move. When other sensory organs kicked in reliably, I was able to hear, touch and smell the general characteristics of my surroundings. Once I established my location, I started to trust my capabilities again.
This phenomenon may have occurred recently in the lives of hundreds of thousands of Californians whose electricity was shut down in order to prevent forest fires. For several nights they lived without light—some of them in near-total darkness. The reality of being in the dark was an ongoing experience of vulnerability: Fright robbing them of their self-confidence, each night becoming a long-lasting purgatory of not seeing, not knowing. Feeling incapacitated, frozen or trapped by the lack of light.
Some of those Californians were elderly folks, for whom the lack of electricity also meant that life-giving medical devices were shut off. That their homes were suddenly more dangerous to navigate. That they were alone, cut off from help or support.
Being in the dark may have been more than an inconvenience for these elders. Without light, they may have come to imagine newly strange sounds as menacing, to feel trapped in their own skins, to doubt their capabilities. Anxiety levels may have escalated rapidly, triggering other unhelpful thoughts or actions.
For any of us, an extended period of darkness can lead to deeper considerations, some of them useful and some of them spiritual. Finding ourselves nearly helpless, we may come to realize how dependent we are on others—waiting for the light to return so that we can express our total gratitude for caregivers and loved ones. We may use the time to reckon with our tendencies to be afraid, to forget our histories of self-reliance. In total darkness, praying can take on new importance, new meaning, new satisfaction. (In my experience, God seems nearer when darkness envelops me.)
A time of total darkness invites me to cherish light of any kind—a small candle or the beam of a flashlight. I wait for the first signs of the dawning day after a sleepless night, realizing that “Joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) holds a very real emotion, feeling gratitude for the gift of sunlight.
When I read other Scriptures connected with light and darkness, I think back to my experiences with total darkness, trying to interpret those passages as their first writers may have intended. I can better understand biblical stories and teachings when the realities of a dark night are the key to knowing the original connotations of these texts.
It’s possible that, in the future, some of us may find ourselves without light. So it makes sense to be ready for all that darkness can offer. So that we can think of “in the dark” as more than a reason for fear and foreboding.
So that we can rejoice in the light.