I wrote this post a few days ago when I felt anxious and discouraged. Writing it helped to clear my mind. Looking back at my blog later, I saw that I’ve written about a similar question in the late fall of each year. I am posting this anyway, because it seems to me that each year I see the issues a little more deeply or clearly.
At this time of year when the darkness grows and I am tired with the season’s work and I am more often inside where I can hear the news, I struggle with periods of inner heaviness and darkness. I am trying not to wallow in this, and not to hide from it. If I look at it clearly I may be able to understand and learn from it. I may also be able to use it as a starting point for empathy and prayer for others who struggle with the same weight, sometimes in acuter forms.
Always I am aware of what a wise Friend from my Meeting calls dark things and bright things. At home there is the richness of the harvest, the beauty of the woods and streams, the good work and caring and delight of the people among whom I live and work. There is also blight and mildew, mercury-laden fish, hurting adults and lost children whom we can’t always figure out how to help. In the wider world the stories of love, courage and renewal are balanced against the stories of violence, greed, ecological degradation. And in myself...well, there’s plenty of the light and the dark there too. The reality I have to deal with doesn’t change all that much. What does change is the pattern it makes in my mind, the way I put it all together.
There are days when it’s easy for me to see the pattern as a curse, to see the hours and days of hard work that I or others spoil with a few minutes of carelessness, the energy and devotion that we pour into deeply flawed causes, the uggsome motives that mix themselves into what we mean as good and generous acts. Occasionally this pattern comes to me as an overt thought about how the world works. Usually it sneaks in through feelings of anxiety and discouragement, a voice just too quiet to hear whispering at the edge of my brain that I might as well not try because I’ll mess it up again, and that I have to try because otherwise it will be my fault when everything goes wrong.
I’m learning to stop myself early in this despondent state, turn the volume up and listen to what’s being said. It’s helpful to realize that the two messages are countervailing, so whatever I do won’t satisfy that voice, so I might as well not waste energy trying to appease it. I’ve also found it helpful to name that voice. So far I’ve found two names that seem true to me, and that give me some power over it.
One name is the common one for the trouble I have: anxiety, which comes from angustia, narrowness. What I see when I’m anxious is generally not false in itself—the world’s problems and my faults are real. But they’re a narrow slice of what is real. Taken by themselves, they don’t rightly depict the truth.
The other name comes from Calvin Miller’s book The Singer. He interprets parts of the Christ story differently than I do, but I find his naming of the devil very helpful. He calls him the World Hater. This name reminds me that the hopeless voice isn’t personal to me, isn’t there because of something or other that I did wrong, wouldn’t go away if I somehow made myself Good; it is simply there, always, hating. This name also reminds me of the story that I do believe, which says that evil is real and sometimes appears to triumph, but that it is not the deepest reality, and it does not prevail in the end.
I believe this story, but it is difficult for me to explain what I mean by it. I’m not able to own some of the explanations that I hear given.
I know people who say that evil is illusory and that we should refrain from paying attention to it and thereby feeding it; that we should believe that God, or the universe, is good and wills well to us, and that we are good and deserving of all good things; and that if we believe wholeheartedly in this goodness we will receive all that we desire. At least that’s what I think they’re saying. For some of them this story seems to bring hope, purpose, joy. I’m glad for that. Parts of it are very close to what I believe. But I can’t base my life on this story.
I believe that evil is real, and that sometimes we need to pay attention to it and work against it. Sometimes it’s a matter of intentions. I know that I harbor the wish to hurt people and the wish to lie as well as the desires for love and truth. If I avoid looking at the harmful wishes they’re more likely to sabotage my loving and my working. Sometimes it’s a matter of consequences. If I ignore economic injustice, violence, environmental degradation, I am apt to live in a way that contributes to all of these things, more in laziness than in malice.
Tied to this is my belief that I should not, in fact, get everything I want. Occasionally what I think I want is destructive. Often it’s unnecessary and comes at the expense of real needs, my own or others’. I don’t think rigid self-denial is a helpful response. I think that self-restraint, and gratitude for what I already have, is helpful...Perhaps I can and should have what I want at the deepest level. When I look steadily into my surface cravings, not getting carried away with them and not denying their existence, I can see a deep and legitimate desire underlying them, which I understand as the desire for union, for love and work, for God. Fritz Kunkel put it better than I can: “..the deepest and most central need of the human being...[is] to face reality, to be as human as possible, and that means going through time, through change, through death, keeping nothing, not even our life, giving everything, even our own will, being poor in spirit, being one with the universe, with our darkest enemy, and with God. That is what we wish for most whether we know it or not.” That I believe. If I stay focused on that I think everything else I need will be added to it, if not everything else I crave.
I also know people who say that evil is real now, but in the future it will be overcome. Some of them see this happening progressively, through evolution or social enlightenment. Some see it happening by way of reversal, with evil growing in power but being overthrown by God in the end. Some of them seem to find hope, purpose and courage in these stories. I am glad for them, but I can’t base my life on either of these stories. One of them may be true. Or not. I don’t know. I do know that the light shines in the darkness, and I feel sure—not curious or hopeful, as I am about the final-victory-of-goodness story, but sure—that it will keep shining. I think that’s enough.
In the meantime I am helped by people who have clearly named the darkness and the light. In the dark times I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lines of struggle:
“O, the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne’er hung there...”
and also of struggle past:
“That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”
And of promise:
“And though the last lights off the black West went,
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Or I read Dag Hammarskjold, or Elizabeth Goudge, or Wendell Berry, or the Bible. They lift me out of my narrowness to see the darkness and the light, and to see all the other people also pinned in the loneliness and fear that I so easily think of as mine alone. I hope and I work to be another companion to people in the dark place, another witness to the wholeness and the goodness of the truth.
And then the times of grace return. When that happens I don’t need words to hold onto. I don’t struggle to define my condition or the state of the world. I simply rest in the grace that holds me, and I delight in the light in the yellow hickory leaves, the sound of the brook running high again, the varied and satisfying work I have found, the gift of the presence of my other and brother and of the people who come through our lives. I don’t have to think of reasons to keep working or caring; both come naturally. I am thankful for this. During the dark times I remind myself that grace comes back, and during the graced times I don’t need to fear the return of the dark times; they will come, but I am slowly, steadily building a strength and clarity that keeps me on track until grace comes again.