Taylor: Reclaiming the goodness of darkness

Animals who know they are dying don’t head for the centre of the pack. They slip off quietly into the night.

A while ago, my wife Joan had to get up early for a hospital appointment. Very early—her alarm went off at 5:30 a.m., when the world outside was still as dark as, well, my thoughts about getting up that early.

Joan tried to make as little noise as possible, which of course made every noise more intrusive—the click of a light switch, the rush of the shower, the buzz of the electric toothbrush….

We live in an open concept house. We wanted it that way. It works wonderfully, except at 5:30 a.m., when the light in the walk-in closet spills over the hall, the bed and me.

And sounds carry in an open house: The clink of a spoon on a bowl, the gurgle of the coffeemaker…

The last switch clicked off as Joan headed out the door. And blessed darkness descended once more.

Why, I wonder, do we dislike darkness so much?

When Joan and I lived in Toronto, it felt as though everything had to be lit up, all night. Perhaps not quite like Las Vegas, but downtown office towers gleamed like lighthouses. Shopping malls flooded their parking lots with light. Every street had to have streetlights.

If a pool of shadow fell on a sidewalk, people avoided it—it might hide a mugger or a rapist. A bush that caused the shadow would be cut back or pulled out.

And yet the darkness that settled around me that morning felt good. It felt like my mother’s arms, many years ago. It felt like a warm soft blanket, enveloping me, letting me sleep again.

It crossed my mind, in that fractional moment before my mind turned off completely, that perhaps this is what death is like. Not a desperate struggle to hang onto the fading light, but a welcoming calm that settles as gently as dew, that soothes away the tensions of the day as surely as a skilled masseuse gently loosens knotted muscles.

I know, I know, most stories about near-death experiences describe being drawn towards some kind of brilliant light. And religion tends to equate light with salvation, darkness with sin.

But those are selective stories. We hear only from those who did not die. We don’t hear, we never hear, from those who didn’t come back.

Nature tells us something different. Animals who know they are dying don’t head for the centre of the pack. They slip off quietly into the night. They find a cave. They curl up under a log. They want to be alone. So that the blessed darkness can settle around them.

When we thought my father was dying, a small group of us set up shifts in his hospital room so that he would never be alone. He didn’t die. He waited another six months. Until a Sunday morning. When his visitors went away to church. By the time they came back, he had died.

I still wonder if he chose that time, when no one would try to shoo the darkness away.

After all, as David Webber noted in the Presbyterian Record, it was out of “thick darkness” that God spoke to Moses on the mountain.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so afraid of darkness.

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