In western culture, we are used to thinking that light=good and dark=bad.
There are many variations on this. We shed light on something (good). We are in the dark (bad). Something is a beacon (good unless it’s misleading). A story is dark (good because it’s a story so it only flirts with the dark). Something is happening in the shadows (bad). We have enlightenment (good). Trolls burst in the daylight (good for us, bad for the trolls). We go through a dark night of the soul (looks bad but may be different). Heaven is light and hell is dark. The angels are bright. The devil is dark. And so on.
There is a lot to explore here. Why do we have these associations? In what way do we use these metaphors? How do they influence our perception and life? What are the upsides and downsides? How do they help us? How do they limit us? What do I find when I explore specific dark/light assumptions?
THE SOURCE OF THESE ASSOCIATIONS
First, where do these associations come from?
It may be partly encouraged by evolution. Favoring light over dark – and the metaphors that come out of this – is understandable for daylight animals like humans. We evolved with eyes that function best in daylight. For us, the daytime is safer than the night. Light is good since it supports our survival, and dark is bad since we can’t see what potentially dangerous things are there. If nocturnal animals developed language and metaphors, theirs may be the reverse of ours.
At the same time, it’s clearly cultural. It’s easy to imagine cultures that don’t have the same assumptions, and we can also find many real-life examples in cultures around the world. (For instance, in some African cultures, white is associated with death.)
THE UPSIDE AND DOWNSIDE OF DARK/LIGHT ASSOCIATIONS
What’s the upsides and downsides of these associations?
The upside is that our shared understanding of these metaphors allows for shorthands and easier communication of certain ideas. That’s the same with all the images we use in our language.
The general downside is that these images become filters for our perception. We perceive, think, and partially live from them. If these remain unquestioned, we may mistake our assumptions for reality, and that creates rigidity, limits to our perception and views, and – in the worst case – harmful behavior.
A more specific example is that these associations have been used by Europeans to support colonialism, slavery, and racism. White people have –explicitly and implicitly –used the darker skin of other people as justification for seeing and treating them as inherently bad or inferior.
EXPLORING SOME EXAMPLES OF THESE IMAGES AND ASSOCIATIONS
What do I find if I explore specific examples of these associations?
White vs black. As mentioned above, in the European culture, the color white is often associated with purity and good while black has less favorable connotations. Good guys wear white hats, and bad guys black. The pure bride wears white, while the mourning widow wears black. These are clearly cultural assumptions and, in some other cultures, it’s reverse.
Skin tone. This connects with European racism where white skin is seen as good and superior while darker skin traditionally has been associated with savages. Again, this is clearly a cultural assumption that is not based in reality, and it’s been used to justify colonialism and generally horrific treatment of those with darker skin. Skin color has to do with human migration, adaption to place, and biological ancestry. It doesn’t say anything about us as people. And, again, in some cultures and societies, these associations are reverse.
Days vs night. We are daylight animals so it’s natural for us to favor the day and daylight. The night belongs to other creatures. But even as daylight creatures, we can find value in the night. For us, it’s a time of rest and sleep. We rest and sleep during the night, and in many cultures, the winter is also a time of rest and catching up with smaller tasks we may not have had time for during the rest of the year.
Known and unknown. Some things are in the dark, and we can shed light on them so they are known to us. What’s known is in the light, what’s unknown is in the dark. Again, this metaphor makes sense of us since we are daytime animals, and seeing and knowing what’s here helps us function and orient in the world.
At the same time, there can be immense value in the unknown. To the extent we take in how little we know, it helps us stay receptive, flexible, and curious. And it makes life far more interesting since we get the adventure of ongoing and never-ending discovery.
What’s unknown may be “in the dark” for us, and can be as valuable as what’s in the metaphorical light and what we think we know.
Good and bad. In many cases, good is associated with light and bad with darkness. There are many wrinkles here. For instance, at a conventional human level, what first appears good in our life can later turn out in an undesirable way, and the other way around. As we see if we look more closely, the light=good and dark=bad analogy isn’t the whole picture and typically doesn’t hold up to examination. Our ideas of good and bad are ideas and labels and not inherent in reality.
Dark nights. A dark night of the soul can refer to many different things, but in the mainstream, it typically refers to a deeply troubling and difficult time in our life. It’s dark because we may not understand what’s happening, and we feel we are in a dark state of mind.
We can see these dark nights as invitations. We are invited to revise our priorities, align our life with our values and what’s most important to us, find authenticity and be more honest with ourselves, heal unhealed parts of us, and heal how we relate to ourselves, others, and life.
There is a blessing hidden in these dark nights.
What’s in the dark in us. We all have parts of ourselves we have shed light on and are relatively familiar with. And we also have a lot that’s in the dark. This darkness just means we are still unfamiliar with it. We can find things there that our personality would like, and also things it would dislike. And as we bring more into the light, and depending on how we relate to what we find and make use of it, it can help us in many ways. It can help us heal, mature, find authenticity, recognize the inherent innocence in what we find, find our wholeness as a human being, be more grounded and sober, and also feel and become more alive.
Awake and not awake. Enlightenment has light in the word, and it’s understandable. Metaphorically, awakening has to do with bringing into light what we are, and perhaps how we temporarily obscure this for ourselves. At different phases of an awakening process, we can also more literally experience or see a lot of light in our system. Of the two – awake and not awake – one isn’t inherently better than the other. And one isn’t more or less the divine than the other. It’s all the play of our mind, life, the universe, existence, or the divine, or all of these, depending on how we see it.
The light and dark divine. Many religions and spiritual traditions include light and dark representations of the divine. In Christianity, we have the black madonna representing an aspect of the divine feminine, fertility, the life-giving womb, transformation, and so on.
Womb. The womb, soil, and early universe all are associated with darkness. And this is where life comes from. We live our first months in and are born from dark wombs. The soil supports most plant life and land life, including our own. The dark and early universe reorganized itself, over billions of years, into the universe as we know it, and into everything we know including ourselves. Darkness is often fertile. Quiet periods in our life can be a womb, as can the night, the winter, spending time in nature, incapacity because of an illness, metaphorical dark nights, and more.
The essence of this is simple: Our associations with light and dark come from our culture and we recreate it for ourselves here and now. These associations are not inherent in reality. At the same time, they do influence our perception and life, so it’s good to bring these to awareness and shed the metaphorical light on them. This helps us relate to these associations more consciously in ourselves and when we find them in our culture.
A PERSONAL NOTE
When I write these articles, I prefer to write brief and simple articles that give only the essence and some pointers for further exploration. In this article, I found myself venturing into a more complex and messy terrain that would require brushing up on mythology, depth psychology, and so on, to do it justice. It may be more appropriate for a much longer article or a book.
This is a reminder of one of the reasons I stick with brief and simple articles: my brain fog. I don’t have much capacity for either reading or editing, so anything beyond a simple and short article – and one that comes directly out of me and doesn’t require any reading or studies – is difficult.
I haven’t read or taken in much information for the last ten years, which is a sharp contrast to my earlier life where I read voraciously – often three books a week. I had plans for writing books, but those plans are on the shelf (pun intended) for now.
There is an upside to this as well. I have to rely on what’s here in me and what I discover for myself through my own explorations. And that’s an invaluable gift.