Now we get to the meat, the dirt, the uncomfortable feeling in your gut, the guilt, the fantasy, the turmoil that spills all over our precious social contract: the Darkness.
Sighted humans -from the beginning of our species, and from birth- rely so heavily on our eyes for information that any time we cannot see, we think we cannot know what surrounds us. Just as a dark cave or a dark woods could mean danger from beasts; or it could mean losing our way, losing our footing, and dying alone; so too any dark place sparks our most primal fear: the unknown.
Darkness has always represented something other than its literal self, making it a symbol, possibly the earliest of symbols. The ancestors of humankind must have thought of the dark in this way, as a sign of unknown dangers, perhaps even before the development of language.
Death itself ranks among the greatest unknowns in human understanding, as our oldest recorded history includes pictographs about the afterlife. In a childlike attempt to shine an imaginary light in that darkness, we invented all sorts of wild fantasies such as heaven, hell, ghosts, and reincarnation, because we would rather believe any story that keeps us “alive” somehow.
So when we speak of dark thoughts, dark moods, dark arts, the shadow, the abyss, the void, or anything coming from a dark place, we refer simultaneously to death, the unknown, and anything we fear. Some of us, however, have either a burning curiosity or a morbid inclination that leads us to enjoy and explore those mysteries.
Walk boldly into the darkness; bring a torch.
Mulla Nasrudin humorously declared that the moon has more value than the sun, because we need the light more at nighttime. How can we embrace the dark while depending on the light — don’t they contradict each other? We all contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman put it, multitudes of qualities, hopes, and reactions like “good” and “evil” that intertwine and commingle in us regardless of their supposed contradiction.
The words good and evil of course have their dictionary entries, but any two people will label different -even fully opposite- things with those value judgments, applying the definitions in conformation to their beliefs and perspective. You may love bacon but the pig will disagree.
Elsewhere in this site we have paired “good” with “constructive”, as in ideas and practices that help us grow and prosper; and “evil” with “destructive”, as in that which harms and blocks us. But often we must destroy something in order to thrive — think of drilling decay from a tooth before filling it — so destruction does not always mean something bad. In order for you to eat and survive, your food must die.
In life many people fixate on just one polar attitude of values. Some cling to an exclusively positive façade: they pray, act happy and virtuous, and try to ignore and bury their darker impulses. This forced mode gives them neuroses, self-loathing, and the hypocrisy of denial as they fail to live up to an unrealistic fantasy. At the opposite extreme, others embrace their darkness, while cynically rejecting and mocking anything hopeful or positive. This mode comes with self harm such as apathetic inaction, bad choice of partners, smoking, self-medicating, or other damaging behaviors.
Clear eyes see that a healthy person rejects neither light nor darkness.
We need the light side to maintain hopeful motivation for taking good care of ourselves and each other. We have the dark side bubbling inside us whether we want to see it or not, so we need to openly acknowledge and honor that aspect of ourselves.
A person with violent urges can release them in healthy or unhealthy ways. The unhealthy and tragic path springs from repression, blocking out and bottling up the darkness until it explodes. In order to get a healthy release, we have to identify that pressure, and design a valve and a safe opportunity to vent. Some people use strenuous exercise, others rap or scream hardcore lyrics, empty a few magazines at the shooting range, talk to a nonjudgmental therapist, or engage in consensual rough play. The specifics do not matter, as long as we look at ourselves honestly and clearly, and directly address anything that we might have the urge to hide or ignore.
The pressure will eventually release outward whether we name it and plan for it or not. Obviously if we fail to identify and plan, it will burst out in some terribly inappropriate manner and place. Someone will get hurt physically or emotionally, traumatized permanently, or killed. Serial killers may start when young by harming animals, and mass shooters tend to have a history of abusing the women in their lives. If society would take this sort of violence more seriously at an early stage, it could avert countless deaths and broken hearts.
“Taking it seriously” shouldn’t mean just incarceration by itself, because that means bottling up the entire person, with the same awful results upon release. Instead the problem calls for engaged treatment of the person’s inner violence, so they have tools for being better people when they get out. Proven successful examples include dogs in prison programs and meditation programs.
We may even suppose that the recent upsurge of nationalism and flagrant racism has erupted from our collective failure to find healthier ways to address people’s ignorance and fear. This violence did not just spring out of nowhere; it has boiled along for hundreds of years, and we just kept bottling it up in denial — until the bottle could no longer hold it.
The Darkness also contains multitudes.
Let us not make the mistake of calling our darkness just some sort of illness to purge. Great pleasures we find there as well. Some of these pleasures only seem dark because of judgmental social programming and scolding, which we can choose to reject. Others have the delectable piquancy of looking death in the face, and either conquering your fear or embracing mortality. And we can revel in the ornate aesthetic of death culture, which seems dark to some, but delights and enlightens us here.
Sexual fantasies spring from deep in the well of our subconscious, so even the more tame fantasies have a tint of darkness to them, especially in sexually repressed cultures. Wilder fantasies typically violate social norms, which of course thus seem darker and more forbidden, so people tend to keep those thoughts hidden. Fearfully religious communities have always blamed nighttime sexual dreams on visitation by demons. We would propose that the awoken demon appreciates their fantasies, and pursues them actively, in a healthy and consensual context.
When looking death in the face through risky amusements, naturally death will sometimes look back and say “yes”, so we do not necessarily advocate taking potentially lethal risks just for the adrenaline rush. But we understand the urge, especially as it can bring a sense of renewed appreciation for life.
Instead though we strongly recommend getting involved in the “death positive” movement. Search the #deathpositive hashtag on social media to find many examples such as Death and the Maiden. Death positivity means bringing mortality out of the unspoken shadows and having open, constructive conversations about how we die, how we treat bodies, death rituals, and how our society manages its fears and laws on the subject. We can transform our lives by transforming our relationship to death.
This can include joyous celebrations like Dia de los Muertos, aesthetic choices such as death-inspired clothing and bone jewelry, political activism on issues like “death with dignity” or green burial, and simply taking the time to talk with your friends and family about these subjects they might normally avoid. We can help each other survive loss, engage honestly with grief, plan for the impending end of life, and create beauty at every step of the way. Even morbid “gallows” humor reminds us that the end mercilessly comes for us all, so we may as well have a laugh now.
These examples show how dwelling on the dark does not have to mean turning away from the light of happiness and wellness. In fact we may find greater joy, deeper peace, truer gratitude, and an overall better life, by actively fostering a culture that explores the unknown, unburdens our fears, and openly deals with death. We shall revel in our Darkness!