Sunday, 31 May 2009

In praise of the dark

Not so very long ago there was an event called Earth Hour. All around the world, people signalled their desire for action from politicians on climate change and other ecological issues by switching their lights off for an hour. Despite the fact this was a symbolic protest, a simple means of displaying a widespread and common desire ignored by politicians, it came in for a great deal of criticism. All the usual suspects lined up to condemn the action. They are clearly frightened by a democratic action that bypasses the control of those ‘in power’. What was sad, however, was the number of Greens and Pagans who spoke out against the action, arguing that it was pointless, that it wouldn’t change anything, that it would cause a surge in electricity production when the lights came back, and so on. Some of these arguments were put forward by the same people who think nothing of travelling hundreds or thousands of miles to attend conferences and protests in big cities and foreign countries…

Some of the naysayers had valid arguments to make, but they did tend to miss the point that this was an action in which ordinary people could participate. The trouble was, they tended to criticise without saying just how else those ordinary folk could make their voice heard. There are many fine examples of people getting on with their lives without screwing up the planet in the process; we could have done with seeing a lot more of those examples being pushed forward.

Irrespective of the arguments re a surge in electricity production increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, I do know that millions of people took part. I also know that politicians will regard it as a stunt and carry on as before. But the thing that got me thinking was the crass statement by a tame psychologist wheeled out for the occasion. He claimed that turning the lights off would send out the wrong message about change; that switching the lights off would give the impression that the only way we could save ourselves would be by plunging ourselves into darkness; that darkness was symbolic of lower living standards, of ignorance, of regression, and of death.

This is pop psychology at its worst and speaks as much (if not more) of a Westernised Abrahamic enculturation as it does of a true psychological evaluation.

As a species, we evolved with the dark as an important part of our lives. Every day, the world turns and we pass through the planet’s shadow. It is called night time. As we are diurnal and, to a much lesser extent, crepuscular, the night is when we rest and sleep. Sleep is essential to both our physical and mental well being. Although the length we need varies from person to person, we do all need the dark every twenty-four hours.

The levels of night time darkness also vary on a monthly cycle with the waxing and waning of the moon. Lunar cycles play a role in our physical and mental wellbeing every bit as important as the diurnal cycle. And the coincidence of the lunar cycle and the human female menstrual cycle is too close to be accidental.

Over the course of a year, for those of living away from the equatorial zone, there is a change in the length of dark periods as well. Again, because we are a diurnal species, we spend more time inside and asleep during the coldest part of the year. At least, that is how we evolved. And evolutionary pressures cannot be overcome by or ignored because of a few decades of electric lighting.

Darkness is, therefore, essential to what we are as a species. The interplay of darkness with light has helped to mould our physical, mental, and spiritual shape in exactly the same way the physical environment has. Psychology is a slightly different matter as our psyche can be changed much more quickly than other aspects of our being and is much more susceptible to social constructs such as education systems, religious and political traditions, and the philosophical creeds on which our society is based.

This does not mean this psychological analysis is correct or that such a psychology is healthy, especially as it appears to be at odds with fundamental evolutionary traits. Indeed, it seems to me that the notion that darkness represents or is psychologically associated with low living standards, ignorance, regression, and death is an expression of infantilism.

Fear of the dark is an infantile response, and then only in some infants. To further associate darkness with all that is ‘bad’ is cultural and not psychological (or only so far as our psyches have been conditioned by cultural pressures). A sign of maturity, a sign of the fact that we are growing up and maturing, is that we no longer fear the dark. This is not to say we should not be wary in the dark, but nor should we give way to fear.

Indeed, refusing to accept the darkness as part of our natural existence is indicative of cultural and social ills. All these lights, all this over complicated technology, the concept of a twenty-four hour society and all the ‘choice’ this is meant to endow tells me that the species is afraid of the natural world. This was not always the case. We have been made afraid of the natural world through the teachings of certain dominant religious traditions, through certain dominant philosophical and political traditions, and through involvement in the chimerical notion of ‘progress’.

There isn’t room here to enter into a discussion about ‘progress’ – it could easily fill a book. But accepting the dark as part of our lives is a sign of maturity. It is a sign of responsibility. It shows we embrace the natural and accept that we are a part of it, no matter how adept we may be at exploiting it. It shows we care for all the other species for whom artificial light has been a disaster. It means we value the night sky in all its glory.

This does not mean I believe we should sit in darkness every evening, that our streets should not be lit. But it does mean we need to take a much more responsible attitude toward our consumption of resources and to our relationship with the world in which we grew up and in which we must live. And it certainly does no harm to embrace and explore the darkness – literal and metaphorical.

[This is a slightly expanded version of a piece first published in GreenWay – the Journey of the Hedge Druid Network]


Ali said...

This is such an excellent piece! :) And, I don't know if you were aware, but Pax has declared June "Pagan Values Blogging Month"--and I think that "valuing the dark" is exactly in keeping with that idea. :)

Graeme K Talboys said...

Thanks Ali, that really is most kind. I am slightly biased as I suffer from a degree of photophobia, but I have always considered the dark, darkness, and the night to be just as important as the light and daytime.

Ali said...

Reading your post reminded me of a podcast I heard... gosh, at least a year ago now, if not longer, where these two uber-Christian folks (the one who used to be a kid actor on "Facts of Life," I think) snuck into a Pagan equinox celebration and couldn't stop making wise-cracks about "why would you ever want to balance light with darkness?!" As if "darkness" were automatically equivalent with "evil" or "bad" or "scary".... I was just telling Jeff the other day that some of my most favorite memories from growing up were the times I was out past dark, playing glo-in-the-dark frisbee or flashlight tag with friends. I love summer nights precisely because twilight lasts longer and the nights are warm enough to frolic in! :)

Pom said...

Agreed 100%. Being an insomniac, I learned to embrace the dark though, for whatever reason, cannot seem to utilize it for sleeping. Dark permits me time to explore myself by myself. While my family's sleeping breaths take hold of them for hours during the night, I find myself really evaluating who I am, what I need, why I do what I do.

My mother recently told me that I'm a very dark person. I'm certain she'd meant it as an insult of sorts, but if one is not bothered by the dark, one is also not insulted by the comparison to it.

Blessings in the light and comfort in the dark.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Ah. Twilight. The sun has not long gone down here in a real blaze of glory across a sea that is mirror calm. Birds are still singing, I can hear sheep from the hill behind, and although there is still warmth in the air, there is a freshness as well. Swallows are still hawking along the green out front, and the first bats have appeared. The moon is a pale amber and there are already one or two stars lighting the stage for tonight's slow dance. What's not to like? What's not wonder at?

As a teenager I used to love walking on the beach at this time of day or sitting on one of the old burial mounds up on the Downs to watch the stars appear.

Alice Kytler said...

It seems to me that nothing could better symbolise the changes we need to make as a society than a time of quieter (no tv) reflection in dimly lit place for an hour. It amazes me that people have trouble understanding that symbolic actions have power when it comes to the group consciousness. People don't get passionate through scientific discoveries that say we're heading toward disaster, they get passionate through feeling empowered. And anyone saying 'this wont make a difference' is going to have the opposite effect.