Darkness and Light

It’s a dark time of year. The nights are longer, the days are darkened by storms, and Seasonal Affective Disorder is raging. Not only that, but it’s been a dark year. We’ve lost what seems like an unusual number of beloved celebrities (David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Prince, Gene Wilder, etc.), and if you’re paying attention to politics and world events you are probably feeling frustration, anger, perhaps even despair.

You’ll notice I’m using “dark” in both a literal and a figurative sense. Actual, physical darkness, the absence of light and sunshine. And emotional darkness — uncomfortable feelings of loss, sadness, and rage.

To stick to the literal for a moment, it has also been a dark year in that darker skinned people have often dominated the news. Black Lives Matter rose to prominence. Native Americans managed to at least postpone ecological and spiritual disaster on their lands in the forms of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Latinos and Muslims were undeservedly blamed for our country’s woes by the GOP and their leading candidate, our President Elect.

And it’s been a light year if you look at Donald Trump. His glass towers filled with gaudy gold rooms. His candy floss hair and orange skin. He’s a badly-aged sun god, and that’s not what Evil is supposed to look like. Evil is a Dark Lord, in a Dark Tower, with dark skinned, dark haired, black-clad minions.

That’s what fantasy tells us, starting with Tolkein. Dark is bad. Light is good. The Dark Lord Voldemort. R’hllor, Lord of Light. We know we’re not supposed to turn around and apply that to real people, people who come in all shades from albino to ebony. But can you really avoid it, when it’s that ingrained?

That’s what my rabbi asked at services this past Friday Night. She asked a room of largely light-skinned, dark-haired people to consider breaking with that metaphorical use. It’s not even part of our culture. In Judaism, everything starts in the dark. Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, starts at sundown, as does every Jewish holiday. Before God said, “Let there be light,” there was only darkness. Before a plant can grow, its seed must be planted in dark soil.

Dark is comfort, closeness, time to gather round and rest and enjoy. We build ritual huts called sukkot for the festival of Sukkot, temporary structures that field workers once used to rest in the shade during harvest time. The creamy white pages of Torah are given meaning by black Hebrew letters. The days turn, the seasons turn, and without that turning we’d be stuck in either lightness or darkness for too long, to our detriment.

My rabbi asked her congregation to decouple our thoughts about light and dark from the metaphorical baggage they have accrued in the English language. So, at this physically dark time of year, I would like to echo her plea. If you’re a writer (and with social media, we are all writers), don’t fall into the hackneyed temptation to create yourself a Dark Lord or a Lord of Light. Don’t lean on that tired old metaphor to color your prose, your poems, or your posts. Because with that aging sun god entering our White House, we are going to need a much more nuanced understanding of good and evil to get through the year ahead.

Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, and peace and love to all.

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