Welcome to Day 4 of 31 Days of Kissing the Wounds, a month of posts about the beauty, longing, and soul inherent in our damaged selves; in the world’s brokenness; in the imperfection, incompleteness, and transience of all that we love; in our recognition of each other as the walking wounded; and in the jagged, messy, splintery, deformed, sullied, unhealed parts of me, you, the natural world, our communities, the culture. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others.
“I thought the most beautiful thing in the world must be shadow, the million moving shapes and cul-de-sacs of shadow. There was shadow in bureau drawers and closets and suitcases, and shadow under houses and trees and stones, and shadow at the back of people’s eyes and smiles, and shadow, miles and miles and miles of it, on the night side of the earth.” — Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
“Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.” ― Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost
“You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
But the darkness pulls in everything;
shapes and fires, animals and myself,
how easily it gathers them!—
powers and people—
and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.
I have faith in nights.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke, On Darkness
I’ve quoted and commented on these lines before, both from Over the moon: Adam Phillips on the happiness myth (in the Guardian, 4 Sept. 2010):
“[W]hat we are lacking when we are unhappy is not always happiness, any more than what an alcoholic is lacking is a drink.”
In other words, an alcoholic lacks not a drink but rather all the things the drink poorly substitutes for (and not only substitutes for, but eventually also prevents the drinker from experiencing), just as someone who’s unhappy lacks not happiness but all the things that happiness (abstractly) substitutes for, and eventually prevents us from experiencing:
“… the right to pursue happiness has seduced us into pursuing happiness when we could have been doing something better. … What have we lost, or forgotten, or ignored, or paid insufficient attention to, or protected ourselves from by wanting happiness?”
What are alcoholics hoping desperately to protect themselves from when they want a drink? What are most of us hoping to protect ourselves from when we want happiness? I can think of a lot of things: suffering, anger, fear, difficult decision-making, loneliness, death, loss, grief, being hurt, doing the wrong thing, messing up, realising we’re screwed up, the unkindness of others and ourselves, ambiguity, lack of love, lack in general, knowing that we and everyone and everything we love will die, hunger and longing that can’t be satisfied, boredom, uncertainty, complicity, awkwardness, shame, an inability to reconcile parts of ourselves, despair, pain, the damage that we do, the damage done to us.
In other words, a real experience of life.
I love Adrienne Rich’s poem “Stepping Backward.” It’s long and I’ll quote more later but this for now:
“We are a small and lonely human race
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
Out on this stony planet that we farm.
The most we can do for one another
Is let our blunders and our blind mischances
Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.
We might as well be truthful.”
“There’s a dark side to each and every human soul. We wish we were Obi-Wan Kenobi, and for the most part we are, but there’s a little Darth Vader in all of us. Thing is, this ain’t no either-or proposition. We’re talking about dialectics, the good and the bad merging into us. You can run but you can’t hide. My experience? Face the darkness. Stare it down. Own it. As brother Nietzsche said, being human is a complicated gig. So give that ol’ dark night of the soul a hug. Howl the eternal yes!” (Chris Stevens, Northern Exposure, ep. 20, “Jules et Joel” )
When I am able to stand in my own shadows, in our communal shadows, I’m reminded that the urge for happiness may be an urge for an easy yet always-receding substitute, a false glittering on the horizon. From the shadows, I think that what I really want might be a sort of wholeness that acknowledges fragmentation; an awareness in myself and others of a darkness that admits light and of a light that admits darkness (you can’t have shadows without some light); an ability to see the shadows at the back of people’s eyes, compassion for light-blindness (exposure, revelation of secrets) and dark-terror (feeling lost and alone in the midst of threat and danger); an embrace of the unknown, a willingness to be lost, a stumbling through the door into the dark night, the dark woods, shadowed by moon and cloud.
“My words echoed slightly
as if dusting their own shadows
for evidence.” — Christopher DeWeese, from “XLVIII,” Field (no. 82, Spring 2010)
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.