One of the most mysterious aspects of life is the simultaneous — even symbiotic — existence of darkness and light, sadness and joy. I used to think that events, people, and years were good or bad, light or dark. The two never mixed.
A bad thing was anything that did not make me happy. I would do anything to avoid feeling sadness.
For me, the holidays resurrect this dusty dream of pure perfection from the cobwebby corners of my brain, and remind me of the vast distance between reality and my old chimera.
Being Small and Being Happy
In my childhood memory, this perfection still exists. Surrounded by reindeer wrapping paper, I’m sitting on the floor next to my giant doll with the glossy brown hair and perfectly pink cheeks, inhaling her glorious just-unwrapped-plastic smell. I’m trying to fit a tiny spatula into her hand so she can use my shiny new Easy Bake Oven. Silent Night is playing on the radio. There is no darkness in this memory, no shadow. All is well.
But of course all is not well. My father is probably pouring his second martini of the morning in the kitchen, and my mother is looking at her Joy of Cooking, but not really seeing the cranberry sauce recipe because she’s desperately trying to figure out a way to stop the scenes she knows will come later. My older brother is having an overly dramatic asthma attack brought on by an earlier temper tantrum, which was probably brought on my Mom’s inattention. My big sister is sulking up in her room, sinking into her pre-adolescent phase where she’ll be lost to us for a few years.
We are in an arms race with the Russians, the Cubans are planning missile bases, and in a few years JFK will be assassinated.
But I am happy. Children are able to exist fully in the moment, focused and oblivious to the shadows. No doubt I’ll get tired and cranky later and start fussing, and the whole world will seem all dark, all hopeless, and irredeemable.
Being Fully Human
As we age, our perspective changes, the camera draws back and we see a little bit of the bigger picture. Darkness and light exist together, and we need them both to become fully human.
We would not know grief if we had not known love. We would not learn compassion if we did not experience pain. We would not have met the heroes of 9/11 or Newtown if darkness had not prevailed first.
We would not recognize the goodness of George Bailey if Mr. Potter did not exist.
Learning to See in the Dark
For me, the world is becoming more and more about redemption, about finding a light within that gives meaning to the darkness. Not trying to escape the darkness, but learning to see in the dark.
Since the darkness is there, along with the light, why not learn what we can from it? Live into it all? Embrace the darkness while we wait for more light?
Instead of forced merriment and constant busyness that keeps loneliness at bay, I choose to feel the melancholy that sometimes creeps in during the holiday season. To take time to miss the people who are gone, and to remember to pray for the hurting in the world.
A Beautiful Longing
The image of perfection and pure light that we carry in our hearts is about longing — it’s what we are meant to strive for. The darkness in the world makes us yearn for the light even more. That’s a good thing.
I’ll be walking on the beach New Year’s Day, God willing. I’ll stop to watch the ebb and flow of the tide, to admire the light and shadows on the crests and troughs of the waves. It will be beautiful.