Printed in the Summer 2018 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Hebert, Barbara, "Viewpoint: Shining a Light into the Darkness" Quest 106:3, pg 10-11
By Barbara Hebert
We typically think of light and darkness as opposites that represent positive versus negative, or good versus evil. The light almost always epitomizes the positive—goodness, happiness, awareness, wisdom, unity, and hope. Light represents the Divine in whatever way we define that term. Darkness frequently symbolizes the negative—evil, ignorance, hatred, pain, isolation, and selfishness. Darkness represents materialism in its most earthly form—ungodly, nonsacred, and almost hellish.
Personally, I sometimes experience cognitive dissonance when thinking of this dichotomy. At times I struggle with the concept of a division between light and darkness, because it seems to propagate the idea that light is better than darkness, and, subliminally, that lighter is better than darker. In a society that continues with rampant racism, we need to contemplate the possibility that this idea perpetuates the belief that lighter-skinned people are better than darker-skinned people. While many may deny that a discussion about light versus dark has anything to do with racism, it remains a point that we must evaluate individually and objectively. Perhaps just a small change in our language may help to end divisions among people.
In any case, the division between light and dark exists, at least in this physical realm. There is light in the daytime and darkness at night. Light and darkness work to balance each other, and as human beings, we seem to need both light and darkness in some balanced manner.
Carl Jung writes, “The word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Replacing the word “happy” with “light” and the word “sadness” with “darkness” in his statement, we read, “The word ‘light’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by darkness.” Light and darkness provide meaning for each other.
Unity versus separation (light versus darkness) is one of the great paradoxes of the Ancient Wisdom. We are One, yet we are individual. We embody the light, and we embody the darkness, and the two make us One. We experience light to bring awareness of the darkness, and we experience darkness to bring awareness of the light. We are light, and we are darkness. We are a whole that encompasses both.
We can look at darkness in terms of those places inside ourselves where we don’t shine the light of self-awareness: the subconscious, the part of our consciousness that lies below our awareness. Every one of us has aspects of our personality that we would prefer not to see, and that we definitely don’t want others to see. Therefore we hide them away in the darkness of our subconscious. We don’t look at them, we don’t see them, we don’t allow ourselves to be aware of them. What do we repress? It may be thoughts, feelings, or even actions based on selfishness, thoughtlessness, cruelty, callousness. We may repress anything that we find offensive about ourselves.
The question arises, “If all of us have these aspects in some form or other, why do we suppress them?” The simple answer is that it hurts to acknowledge those aspects of ourselves that we deem undesirable, and as human beings, we will do whatever we need to do in order to avoid this pain. Jung writes, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”
Repression requires a great deal of energy and effort, even though we are rarely aware of it. It requires a lot of work to not see something that is part of us. Another potential challenge of repression involves the explosive potential of these hidden thoughts and feelings. Using the analogy of a volcano may be helpful. A volcano erupts because of increasing pressure within it. Similarly, when the pressure from repressed material becomes great enough, we also explode.
My personal and professional experience indicates that these explosions tend to happen at the worst possible time and in the worst possible place. For instance, a client with whom I worked several years ago had experienced what he considered an extremely unfair accusation against him. This accusation, while never substantiated, caused great turmoil in this young man’s life, and he felt isolated, ridiculed, and humiliated. These feelings coalesced into feelings of anger. But given his life circumstances, he could not express his anger about the situation, so he suppressed it for almost ten years. He came into counseling because of difficulties with his job in retail sales. His manager had told him that if he didn’t work on his anger issues, he would be fired.
Through counseling, this young man realized that he had suppressed his feelings of anger from that previous time in his life. Anytime a customer questioned the young man, he felt unheard, ridiculed, and humiliated again. Not surprisingly, he reacted with explosive anger, couched in sarcastic and hurtful comments to customers. Shining a light on the original incident enabled this young man to see the impact it was having on his current life. This awareness allowed him to heal from the original hurt and to experience more peace than he had had for many years. As Jung writes, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.”
This young man was able to shine the light of self-awareness into the darkness of his suppressed feelings and thoughts because the counseling relationship is nonjudgmental. As always, I am a strong proponent of counseling, but I wonder how many of our personal issues could be addressed simply by being nonjudgmental toward ourselves. If we let go of the guilt, if we accept ourselves without condemnation, how much easier it would be to shine the light of self-awareness into the darkness of repression! Even more importantly, I wonder if we would continue to repress those things about ourselves that we perceive as offensive.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The Ancient Wisdom shares this same insight: the human experience is about learning. If we see ourselves as learners, then we may be able to give ourselves permission to make mistakes, even mistakes that horrify us. We will all—at some point—act, think, or feel selfishly, cruelly, heartlessly. How can we learn if we have not experienced the results of our thoughts, feelings, and actions? Certainly I am not advocating that we purposely make mistakes; but I am advocating that we treat ourselves with kindness and refrain from judging when we do. Jung writes, “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”
Imagine two children playing on the playground. A six-year-old says to another child, “If you don’t play on the swings with me, I’m not going to be your friend anymore.” This statement can be perceived as selfish and hurtful. The six-year-old may even have meant to be selfish and hurtful. Do we condemn that child? Hopefully, we will recognize that this is a learning experience for both children and deal with the situation with kindness.
We can apply this analogy to ourselves. If we see ourselves as learners on the playground of life, and if we observe ourselves having thoughts, feelings, and actions that we find objectionable, then we will hopefully deal with ourselves kindly and without judgment.
Of course, recognizing that we are learners in this playground of life does not absolve us from responsibility for our behavior. Even so, nonjudgmental self-acceptance and a willingness to learn and grow may propel us on our spiritual journeys. In this manner, we allow the light of self-awareness to shine into the darkness of repression. As spiritual beings having a human existence, we are light, and we are darkness. We are a whole that encompasses both.