Out of the Dark

Photo copyright Ev Bishop

Photo by Ev Bishop

When the long kind days of summer leave and fall and winter set in, my house is extremely dark at night. Set on four acres in a rural area, away from streetlights and shrouded from neighbors by forests, unless you turn something on, the hallway, staircase, and basement are pitch black. And it doesn’t matter how familiar I am with my home, every so often this deep darkness catches me by surprise.

The other evening, I started downstairs, not realizing someone had killed all basement lights. I was fine at first, but on the landing just before the final flight of stairs, the thought hit: Wow, it’s really dark. And just like that I lost my place and froze.

Eventually, since there was no other viable option, I moved forward again, prodding for solid ground, one foot at a time. Every so often, feeling empty air, my heart would race. Was this the spot I’d fall? And then I was safely on smooth floor once more, familiar with my surroundings again, relief flooding through me.

The small lesson felt like a gift.

I’ve had a difficult five or six months. There have been lovely times and moments, but there have also been terrible, wrenching events. The deep contrasts between life’s good and bad have been . . . harder than usual. I’ve been struggling to cope with the things other people suffer, and angry at the unfairness and randomness of so much of life. Plus I’ve been uncomfortably aware of the pettiness of some of my problems compared to bigger issues (personally and within the larger world) and frustrated with my inability to do much of anything to help.

And I’ve felt guilty for such negative feelings because even in the toughest times I’m poignantly aware of all I have to be grateful for—and I am grateful. Truly. But sometimes my blessings make the questions I have harder to stand up under, not easier. Why am I spared? Or blessed? Why is anyone?

During this dark time, my faith and core beliefs have taken a hit and I’ve been very, very sad—to the point that I’ve worried what if my resilience gets so battered I can no longer bounce back? What if one day I just can’t muster energy, or keep putting myself and my heart out there?

And then I had the stairs-in-the-dark incident, followed closely by a chance stumble into this Kurt Vonnegut quote:

Be soft.
Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let pain make you hate.
Do not let bitterness steal your sweetness.
Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.

I found the simply worded admonishment comforting. And challenging.

Pain can make us hate. I have to fight that in myself. Other people’s behavior can tempt us to harden ourselves. I need to resist that inclination. I have to let go of bitterness. It poisons and sours the sweetness that co-exists with the awful.

The world is a beautiful place—or can be—and that’s why the hard things are excruciating. We know how good things can be, should be, so we chafe against the bad. That can be beneficial if it gives us courage to change the things we can. It’s destroying when it keeps us focused on what we can’t change or prevents us from recognizing and taking joy from the things we have that are good.

I don’t think we’re ever prepared for the familiar to suddenly become alien or to find ourselves in times of utter darkness, but perhaps it’s unavoidable. Yet if we can somehow keep feeling our way through those times, eventually we’ll make it back to, or will create, a safe place. And meanwhile, maybe we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for feeling bruised and aching occasionally. That’s what happens when you’re soft. And softness is good.

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“Out of the Dark” by me, Ev Bishop, was originally published in the Terrace Standard, October 28, 2015 as my monthly column “Just a Thought.”