You Need Not Fear the Dark

Photo by Sunyu Kim on Unsplash

A strange thing happened to me during the pandemic — I got afraid of the night.

Normally, night is a time I like. The world releases it’s hold a little — you hear the birds, and the bugs, and the voices. In fact, the dark is not really dark in a city. There’s always street lights, and the glow in the sky, and the windows picked out against the hills.

Night is not black — it’s usually shades of blue and purple and grey, maybe a little black at the edges and in the sky, and the sky is lit by stars and the moon in its phases. You can see in the dark, and it’s not the absence of day, but just a different shade of it. The world continues, living and breathing.

But during the pandemic, I started to fear the night. I’m not sure if it was too quiet, or because, let’s say the normal threads of things that usually run through the dark were absent. It didn’t feel like the world was breathing — more that it was still. And who knows what’s walking in the street, when the threads begin to snap.

So, I would sit on the patio and smoke half a cigarette — always listening for something, a door opening, a rustle, and run back inside, just in case it was something I didn’t want to meet.

It is true that more bad things are likely to happen at night, but dealing with bad things is mostly knowing how to deal with them.

Maybe it was the absence of cars, and no hum on the freeway.

As the pandemic began to fade — and the infection rate, perhaps, has not… but the fear has — I had to reacquaint myself with dark. And it took a minute — I had to gradually build up my tolerance: to not jump at shadows, to listen carefully and look thoroughly, to see the actual shape of things, to not scatter immediately.

So, I think there are a number of things people are ignoring — and I think that is because those things are too painful, or too intolerable, or too frightening to think about.

So, there is this kind of bright, brittle cheerfulness — and then all these dark things run along under it. Like if we keep up the narrative, if we tell the right kind of stories, the dark won’t rise up to the surface and we will skate over it.

I’m not sure people can live like that, or that they should.

I remember a similar thing just after the 2016 election — where it was easier to be shocked and horrified, and baffled than to look closely at events and examine them to see what was familiar, what was unsurprising, what was within the realm of expectation. To see the link between what is abnormal and what was normal — which has a tendency to render both aberrant.

I was afraid, then, that people would not look closely — and this would be dangerous, because the devil is in the details, and everything happens in other places until it happens near to you.

For me, the only thing that helped was to sit down and think about what actually was happening — to try and see it clearly — without the easy security of distance, either in terms of proximity or perception. Without the faith that it would be possible to stop what was happening, by any rhetoric, or act of self-abegnation, or well-devised strategy.

And I wasn’t the only one, because people gradually learned to go down in there and unpick — and they taught each other about that collectively — until a lot of people knew enough. The collective information processing that’s necessary in a democracy, and before that, seemed absent adapted to the parameters of the new situation.

There’s still a lot that’s absent, but there was enough.

Now, we’re sitting here on the eve of another election, and there’s a lot of new dark things that have come into the environment. There’s that pandemic, and what it’s impacts have been: socially, economically, politically, and psychologically. There’s the continued unfolding of the process that began, politically in 2016, achieving some of its logical outputs. There’s the protests and the general cognition that all might be not quite as it seems, and the collective inability to think about what to think about that.

There’s all the shit that went bad, from 2016 sure — but actually all the theoretical questions that weren’t properly contested before that — and was never really dealt with properly, all the rot under the surface.

There’s the imminent fear that the Biden won’t win the election (edit: no longer a fear), and the results of that.

So, I can understand the tendency to look away from it.

We’ve kind of developed this sense that one person can be responsible for collective suffering — that each person is. As if one person can swallow the world in its entirety, and if they just find the right rule set, if they just display the right kind of spirituality or selfhood — they’ll be able to rectify it in their own person.

The truth is that no one person can redeem the world. Your job is to live, and to observe, and to act as you can, to do what you’re meant to do. You cannot hold the entire world up on your shoulders.

I can understand where it comes from. There is this looming reality where someone people exercised their individual agency, their individual will and interpretation, and they got it so terribly wrong. And some of those people look a lot like us, whoever we are.

Looking into that reflection, people are afraid that they’ll also get it wrong, if they act out too much. Since it’s unclear to them how things went wrong, they think they must have a rule or a doctrine or a pre-conscious awakening to prevent themselves from falling into the dark that they cannot predict and do not know the name of.

If darkness is unparse-able, and you have no theory of evil, then you can’t do the right thing — you can only be the right type of person — in order to avoid it.

Then there is the issue of power — because the current situation is driven by the powerful exercising their power against the rest of the people living in society. So, it seems (and maybe is true) there needs to be power to combat power (but there are multiple types of power, and multiple ways of achieving it).

And power is never just. To mobilize power, you have to deal with whatever combination of ignorance and desire is found among the people you’re working with, is the temptation and sometimes the reality.

Implicit in that is the fear that if you jag out on your own, then others might do so also. It’s not an unreasonable fear — even people who are working to make life better along one axis and another one can butt heads, because each has incomplete data and an imperfect notion of the good, and each tries to navigate the current power structure, strategically.

Therefore, part of the tendency to limit sight is driven by pragmatism

This is because cohesion without solidarity requires you to ignore your own interests and experiences, and the ungovernable messiness of the human experience in general. To do that you have to blind yourself partially — and numb yourself up. Because if you do not, you won’t be able to ignore those realities, and they will drive you (and others) to complexity — and possibly to defection.

It should be noted, just so it can observed, that this decision-space actually isn’t governed by the individual — it’s governed by other people, and their predicted behavior, including, please note also: the parts of other people’s predicted behavior that are ignorant, unjust, or inhumane in their own right.

But solidarity is difficult, and uncertain, because it requires that people get good (or at least: not-bad) at a whole bunch of issues all at once — and remain good enough at them even when conflict arises, or when negotiating a future that no one is certain of.

There is the fear of what would happen if the opposition candidate loses the election — which would be a further slide in autocracy. Unfortunately, too, because this is a very religious society, it won’t be business authoritarianism , which is livable for most people — it will have elements of social authoritarianism too, and that one is livable for nobody. Think more like Iran than Russia. Those politics are grim and unfamiliar to most people in the US, so they’re something that people will look away from.

(I’ll say, they are unfamiliar at the regime level —they have been present in the US, to a greater or lesser extent, at the subnational level. Although: people in the US are also not great, in general, at acknowledging and processing those examples as a part of “normal” reality — it either has to be a distant sin, or a immanent narrative… and not a living breathing feature of the environment.)

And there is the general sense of instability — if what were formerly stable parameters are moving unpredictably — so, people will try to create the perception of stability. Sometimes that means working, creatively, to re-stabilize a local environment, or to bridge across the gap, or to grab one of the threads from the fraying knot-work of previous reality — and tie it into the whatever society is weaving itself to be.

But since we’re talking about the perception of stability here, and not the reality — it can also mean just refusing to look to closely at things that are upsetting, which is most things at this point. To pretend that nothing is changing, or to reset the value of normal so that it matches whatever — actually dynamic, and unstable — situation appears to be most prevalent at current.

(The truth is that even in conditions of high instability, local environments tend to be relatively stable — or at least not so unstable that they can’t be navigated. The world has its own kind of inertia, and humans are pretty adaptable. You can navigate greater strangeness than you think, if can accept that things are strange.)

So tonight, I am sitting here in the dark, and listening to cars and the trucks rumble and grind down the freeway, towards the mountains. I can hear the bugs clicking and humming — the last wave that survived the first freeze. I can hear the birds rustling in the tree, and the occasional hum of the neighbors voices.

I hear some footsteps in the street, and a car pass slowly, but they pass by.

The moon is high, and the sky’s deep blue, the pines are dark shadows, rising high — and I can see the many shades of black in the leaves and trunk of the plum tree outside, light of the windows next door over the wall.

It’s Halloween, so All Hallow’s Eve — when the world of spirit is closer to the material one, and I’m thinking of my dead — like usual — but they aren’t answering. Still, I wish them well.

What I do hear is the world breathing, and the familiar spirits that run around in it seem friendly, like they haven’t been in a long time.

So, I’m going to make this suggestion: which is that you look into the dark, and try to see clearly.

Think about the unthinkable — what seems unknowable, look closely at what you’re afraid of or uncertain of, think about what is bad and why it is that way— what caused it and facilitated it, and where it comes from. Look at the things that seem frightening and try to understand them — how they work, and what made them. Try to think what you make of them.

Look into the night, and try to parse it. Think about the night as a phase of the world, rather than a different one entirely— and think about the dark, what’s living in it, and how to move through it effectively.

Do not be afraid, not because nothing is bad or nothing is dangerous — there are bad things and dangerous ones— but because fear is not the final end of reality.

Fear is a warning, and a reminder, to pay attention — to move quickly if you need to, to remember something — but it is not a conclusion, or a viable strategy.

The cure for fear is to look closely, to catalogue the shape of the shadows, and how they move, and what it means when they move this way.

The cure for fear is not ignorance or avoidance — even the polite kind — it’s knowledge and acknowledgment, observation and data… and experience.

Look closely at the night, so that you can walk in it. So that you don’t spend the day fearing sunset.

Look closely, and I won’t say don’t be afraid because that’s not reality, but look past where fear is — to see what’s in the dark, so you can walk and rest when you need to, to get wherever you’re going to — and see the rest on their way safely, also.

Maybe not.