Many years ago I had the privilege of studying art in Italy. In perfecting the strokes of my pencil to create just the right contour, I can remember my teacher gently instructing me on the importance of a relationship between darks and lights. He explained that the dark and light use each other to create a picture that looks real. Contrast is very important, and the artist has to learn how to work with both.
As clinical counselor, I have seen the interplay of this concept in the depths of human experience as it applies to one's journey through twists and turns in life. Most people naturally want to stay in experiences that elicit a brightness or light. In some cases, there is resistance to even recalling one's own, or someone else's, moments of darkness. Tragedy, abuse, abandonment, rejection, anger, loneliness, death and fear are pushed away with the hope to never have to know or experience again their brutal impact on a person's tender attempts to find a smile or happiness. Yet, somehow these things are, unfortunately, an inevitable part of a journey through this existence. Every attempt to avoid, run, push away, or hide from the contrasting strokes in life's picture are mocked as the news replays the disturbing events of our time. So what is the answer to this inevitability? How can one accept this reality and yet still find hope to inspire, beauty to create, and motivation to press on?
I recently came across an excerpt from John Bunyan's famous work "Pilgrims Progress." In it, the main character Christian comes to a place in his journey where he is tempted down a road off path leading him to a place the author entitles "Doubting Castle." He is accompanied by his friend Hope who offers encouragement and companionship, but fails to know, any more than Christian, how to get away from the place they are approaching. They are soon met by a huge giant named "Despair" who captures them and puts them into a dungeon. The two friends find themselves stuck, doubting, and soon profusely beaten down by Despair. They endure the pain of the days they are in the dungeon until the giant offers them a way out of their troubles by inviting them to end their life with a knife, halter, or poison, he would provide. Christian feels the physical pain of his bruises and becomes increasingly more interested in Despair's offer than his journey, or believing there is a way out. The Pilgrim almost gives in when Hope recasts a vision for their destination, and reminds Christian of the light of the Celestial City that awaits. It is in that moment that Christian remembers he has had the key all along to unlock the door of the dungeon. He musters up the strength to use the key and opens the door to freedom, life, and a journey with a restored destination.
This story is significant to the above ponderings for these reasons. 1) It describes the road that seems to accompany darkness. 2) It makes obvious why this path would be avoided and resisted. 3) It examines the depths of despair in its power to entice one to end life. 4) It invites the notion of hope and light in darkness brought by companionship and the key out. All of these things contribute to drawing a realistic picture of one's journey and will be outlined in more detail below.
The Road that Accompanies Darkness
Analogous to the story is a degree of doubting that exists when darkness is experienced, doubting life, purpose, meaning, relationship, to name a few. The doubting lends itself to a sort of dungeon that is controlled by a lot of despair. The longer despair and doubt are in power the more beaten and confused a person becomes. The questions rarely get answered, destination and sense of purposeful existence get blurred, and, before long, finality in life feels enticing. Many of us know this dungeon. Others may be in this dungeon currently. The experience is very painful and a person cannot endure it for long, nor can they endure it alone. As the book continues, Christian discovers what has happened to some of the pilgrims that have been in the dungeon for a long time. If they are not dead, their eyes are poked out and they are found wandering aimlessly. Despair can do this to a person as it steals the light and consumes the whole picture with pure darkness. Blindness and wandering.
This Path is Avoided or Resisted
After this description of the disparity, it can be understood why most people will do anything to stay away from this path and exist purely in light spaces. Nobody wishes this existence upon themselves or anyone they love. However, it is inevitable that this road will be stumbled upon at some point in life. Some things happen outside of our ability to control.
The Depth of Despair and the Power to end Life
If the darkness does not find the light again, it skews reality completely and makes ending life of self or others a possibility for power to rise out of deep pain. Recent news articles examine the story of a boy who took the life of his mother, himself and children. It is very difficult to understand how a person could do something so abominable. It can be presumed that this person must have been in a very dark dungeon for a long time with no light or reflection of reality to the point that darkness consumed and meaning was lost. This person was also alone and isolated in this dungeon with no Hope there to recast even a shred of light. He was blind and enticed to destructive means that did not get him out of the dungeon but rather submitted himself to eternal darkness.
The concern with this story is that the imposed tragedy was so great that many are now struggling in the face of darkness and possible feelings of despair may begin to set in. However, as the community joins together, a defense against desolation is built, creating companionship and Hope to accompany one through dark moments of sadness and pain.
The above example describes a very extreme scenario, but there are scenarios every day that occur where a person is isolated and the Giant of Despair tempts a relief to their pain that is not freedom from the dungeon, but rather death to life itself. Suicide is a real thing that many people have considered when the pain and dark shadows are more than they believe they can bear.
Hope and Light brought by Companionship and the Key Out
Hope in this story is a character that journeys with Christian and stays beside him through the ups and downs that he experiences. He does not necessarily always have the answer, and he certainly cannot free Christian himself, but he consistently offers encouragement, companionship, and reminders of purpose and meaning in their journey towards the Great Celestial City. This character is significantly a part of the process. As we face places of darkness and despair, it it so important not to isolate, though that can seem appealing at times. Every person needs a Hope to journey beside them. This can be difficult to find for some people, and the way our society moves in the direction of independence with superficial virtual connection, I fear that true companionship and relationship are getting harder to find. It is important to build relationships with a person or people that would foster encouragement, growth, and ultimately hope so that when the dark times comes one is not alone. Not only is it important to receive this Hope from another, but when the time is right it can be of value to be Hope to others as well.
So Hope reminds and encourages, but Christian has to recognize himself that he has the key to open the door and get out. It is human nature to look to everything around us to solve our problem and bring purpose, meaning, and light. Christian may have looked to Hope to get him out. Or perhaps he was waiting in the dungeon for something to come free him. However, the key of Promise is remembered and Christian has it in his own pocket. At the end of the day we have to realize that we are the ones that have the key to get ourselves out. It is a concerted effort to recognize what that key is and use it to unlock the door and find freedom. A good counselor can help to get a person to the point where they see the key and remember that they can use it, but it is ultimately up to the individual to actually stand up, unlock the door and step out. In Pilgrim's Progress the key resembles God's Promises which Christian had to stand up and use to unlock the door and accept freedom.
In closing, it can be summarized that darkness is a part of human experience. Somehow this darkness when recognized, and worked with, can actually be used in a way that makes the lights even more defined and bright. The road of darkness and despair is something that we all contend with at some time. The Giant of Despair can throw us in his dungeon and we can feel stuck with thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are disarming and negate the vision of light or release from the prison walls. Finding companionship and Hope in the midst of this provides encouragement and reminders of a greater purpose and meaning in life. True freedom comes from recognizing that the key is in our own pocket and that it is possible to unlock the door to walk in the light again.