Presently, I have some relatives and know some close friends, as well as relatives of close friends, who are going through what may be called some dark times. For some reason, there seems to be an epidemic of hard times. And quite frankly, apart from platitudes, I don’t know what to say to them for fear of either discounting their present experience or uttering some meaningless well-intentioned but, nonetheless, nonsensical, shallow nothing.
These days I’ve also embarked upon a personal journey of reading and writing poetry. I believe the power of language to express our deepest concerns, fears, and emotions is an awesome one that we rarely, if ever, access. I’m reading through a collection of poems by the poet, William Stafford, entitled, The Darkness Around Us is Deep. I would like to build off the poem from which that line comes, “A Ritual to Read Each Other”, and challenge any who stumble across this page to think about the notion that when our loved ones and friends are going through their dark night of the soul, there is no reason for us to fear making our signals clear to them. More than anyone else, I’m challenging myself as well.
I’m not claiming that we should know what to say, but instead, I’m challenging us – you and me – to reach down in our gut and simply not remain on a shallow level. The culture around us from TV and entertainment to politics and religion is growing more shallow each day. The darkness around us, is indeed, deep.
I recently had a conversation with a close friend, both of us Christian, regarding the fact that when the dark of night falls, all trivialities fade away rather quickly, and what really matters in our living comes sharp into focus. What and who are of utmost importance in our lives emerge. It is okay to be human, and in the day-to-day workings of our lives, we can easily get lost in the unessentials as to who we really are. But we must be vigilant about not becoming so lost that we lose touch with what is important and real. When we encounter people in the midst of their dark night, the platitudes we may offer are more for our own comfort than theirs. False bromides, statements that resemble something lifted from a meme, or motivational speaker power speech come into play. Yet the question that comes to mind as my friend and I discussed is – what is real? Is God real, and is he here with me in this? The darkness around me now is real. A line that stands out in the first stanza of Stafford’s poem for me reads, . . . following the wrong god home we may miss our star. Who and what in the core of our being do we believe we are? How do we live it out in the light of day and in the darkest night? What to say to a friend: such darkness is scary as hell. The dark is real.
When the dark of night falls, it is time to do battle. Darkness is something to fight, not something to which to surrender. The focus again is sharp, the battle lines drawn, and the knowledge that outcomes will involve a fight is real. Yet it is a fight in which people do not have to be alone. The power of language from friends, if words address what is real, can be felt and known. We don’t minimize the battle, we don’t meme away the significance of what is deeply true to us that now we must live out to its core. To do otherwise is living a lie. In his poem Stafford speaks of what he designates to be the root of all cruelty: to know what occurs but not recognize the fact. Why mince the words? Even if the words are, I don’t know what to say but I’m here, say them. And perhaps we can add, I know this battle is real.
Poetry, and the power of words, can bring what is true to light. And where there is darkness there can be the light of day although we may not know now what that will be like. This is the power of the logos, and the Imago Dei in human beings. Yet what we call the arts today – TV, movies, music – for the most part are sucking the culture of any life blood it may have. Viktor Frankl, in the darkness of a Nazi concentration camp uttered the statement: It is not what we demand of life that matters, but what life demands of us. When the night comes, the depth we have will depend on the depths we’ve searched out. For me, personally, that’s a scary thought. Awaken. What does life call on us to do? From the core of who we are, how will we live out what we have searched for ourselves to be? In the last stanza of Stafford’s poem, a line reads, For it is important that awake people be awake. When the dark of night falls, it is then when the sharpest focus can come into vision, and the battle is seen for what it is – real.
What signals do we give our loved ones and friends when they are in their dark of night? What signals do we give ourselves in our darkest moments? The questions, the doubts, the fears, the hopes, the dreams, are all real. The culture around us, in all its religiosity, superstition, and political correctness will fail to embrace the depths of what we experience and need. Religiosity and superstition do not reveal spiritual truth; correctness is a guise for conformity that prevents us from knowing who we really are – what Stafford addresses in his poem as a pattern that others made that can come to prevail in the world. But the focus on all we value and hope for becomes sharp – even in the dark – because we can say it is real. There are things we can understand, things we can’t understand, and things we’re trying – seeking – to understand. This fact – this struggle – is what we can communicate to our loved ones, friends, and ourselves. Stafford’s poem reads in its closing:
the signals we give – yes or no, or maybe-
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.
John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D./June 14th, 2015