Conquering our primal fear of darkness

By Tom Burns - Stargazing

One of my greatest joys and greatest pains is to stargaze alone. I must confess that, after all these years, I still harbor a child’s fear of the dark.

That old fear came back a couple of years ago at the Perseid meteor watch held by the John Glenn Astronomy Park in Hocking Hills State Park.

As the meteors increased after midnight, I found myself jabbering away to a decreasing audience about this or that meteor, and this or that feature of the sky.

But soon my audience had disappeared completely, and I fell as silent as I was in my youth. For a moment, the terror returned with every creak and groan that filled the night.

Our fear of the dark is fundamental to our humanness. It is built into our genetic code — and with good reason.

Danger lurks in the dark. Saber-toothed tigers rushed out of the darkness, their glowing eyes alone visible. We built fires to frighten away the dark.

Humans have built a metaphorical mansion out of our fear of the dark. Our intellectual understanding of the world is described as a journey from darkness into light. Our metaphorical monsters leap at us from the darkness. We stumble in the dark.

Darkness symbolizes danger, but most of all, it represents the unknown. And the greatest of all those monsters is the darkness that faces us all, the mawing void that we all must confront as we lay dying.

And yet the universe at its most essential and most beautiful is silent and dark.

Darkness thus represents a precious opportunity to see our wider universe. How often have I experienced that magical time, evening twilight? As twilight deepens, first perhaps a planet or two appear, and then a few bright stars. And then a vast confusion of stars that resolves itself into insane orderliness for those lucky few who have taken the time to learn the constellations. And then, increasingly, a profusion of fainter stars until the sky seems overflowing And then the glorious Milky Way. To this day, I shake my head with incredulity that such a beautiful thing is possible in a world so filled with sorrow and pain.

We owe it all in large part to the planet’s spin. A slower spin or none at all would concentrate the sun’s heat and light on one hemisphere of the planet. Despite the ameliorating effects of Earth’s atmosphere, which spreads out the heat somewhat, the spread is made even greater by Earth’s spin. We owe the existence of life to Earth’s spin, which stirs the terrestrial pot just enough to produce the conditions for life. In some small measure, humans owe their existence to that spin.

Thus, inevitably, we must spend half our lives in darkness. Yet we still manifest our loathing for it. We choose to rest, to sleep, in darkness. We light up the night to create artificial day. And we have done so since the first human-built the first fire.

Our days are filled with doing this and that. Our daily concerns are a bulwark against our greatest fears. But when night comes, we sometimes lie awake and confront those fears. Even when we sleep, our dreams are filled with unfulfilled desires and unconscious dreads.

St. John of the Cross, a medieval Christian mystic, called such fear the “dark night of the soul.” We loath the soul’s dark night because our own unique monsters lurk there. For St. John, it was a fear of unworthiness. How can you, so tiny and imperfect a creature, hope to share in the glory of God and the vastness of God’s creation, the universe?

However, St. John knew, as I have come to know, that contending with that psychic darkness is a necessary part of the journey toward joyfulness.

At the center of all of that struggle is the search for the light, the search for meaning in a sometimes dark and meaningless world. That meaning always seems to elude us, or at least we think so in our darkest hours. During those hours, we are, as poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “like a heat maddened fly buzzing at the sill.” We seek the light but some invisible barrier makes it impossible to reach it.

In that regard, as I climbed into the shower one morning, I spied a large, flying bug caught between the screen and the glass of our bathroom window. The bug explored — and would, I imagined, continue to explore to the end of its brief days — the screen to make its escape from its confinement toward the sun and freedom.

What I had and the bug did not was a larger perspective that would have easily allowed it to see that it was doomed without some more powerful outside intervention. The human God could easily open the window.

We humans are much like that bug. We imagine our impending societal and personal doom, and we seek a wider perspective that will allow our escape. Some of us make a lifetime of doing it.

That search is the motivation for a belief in God, devotion to a political entity, reliance on demagogic politicians, the certainty that intelligent aliens exist, a trust in magic and occult practices, philosophy, physics, psychology, sociology, and a host of other ologies.

I do not mean to demean those practices. One or the other of them might yield the truth, and all of them have produced some benefit to us, even as they may have produced some harm.

We should not stop engaging in such endeavors. We must continue to seek that wider perspective. There might be a hole in the screen that our limited perspective causes us not to see.

For that reason, we must continue to listen carefully to other bugs on the screen even if they seem to have covered ground we have already covered. Perhaps they will find a clue that we missed.

We must not act in ways that are counterproductive to the quest of others. I could have easily put the bug out of its perceived misery because my larger perspective convinced me it was the right thing to do.

I did not. I resolved to find a way of opening the screen and letting the bug out to continue its journey toward the sun.

In that, I showed my arrogance. I succeeded only in releasing the bug into the larger confines of my home and thus dooming its quest for the sun.

Most of us spend a part of our life searching for a larger perspective, but then we stop. We seek out easy answers, and we stop. We put ourselves in the hands of charismatic leaders, and we stop. We yield to the greater intelligence of others or their persuasive skills, and we stop.

We assume that our perspective is the right one, that it will cure the world’s ills and that it will provide an escape from the darkness that envelopes us all, and we stop. Or worse yet, we conclude that no perspective is correct. We yield to despair or cynicism, and we stop.

We must not stop. We must continue to search. Perhaps, as Nikos Kazantzakis wrote, “God is simply the search for God.” Or perhaps there just might be a hole in the screen, and collectively or individually, we may find it.

Above all, we must conquer our fear of the darkness that will soon enough engulf us all. At some point, we must leap across the chasm and embrace the dark. As St. John wrote, “The endurance of darkness is the preparation for great light.”

For St. John, the destination is an understanding and union with God. For me, it is an understanding of the cosmos and my place in it. There are moments, I must confess, when I am convinced that St. John and I hunger for exactly the same thing.

Above all, we must be fearless in our knowledge that such a journey into the darkness of the night is always a journey back to our truest and most joyful self. It is a long journey home.

During my life, the stars have shown me the way to happiness, to fulfillment, to quiet joy. I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

Such was the case in my youth. I miss the summer nights of August when I stood alone under dark rural skies and stared up at the summer Milky Way stretched across the sky like the backbone of the night.

That night of the Perseid meteor shower, my youthful fear of the dark gripped me in its iron glove, but only for a moment. As I stared upward at the Milky Way, fear was replaced by another emotion.

It felt, well, it felt … And words fail me.

Luckily, they did not fail the beloved Japanese poet Issa. As I stared upward, one of his poems gently wafted like a cool summer breeze through my mind:

Summer night—

Even the stars

Are whispering to each other

In my youthful days, I knew how to shut up and listen with my heart. Someday, before I pass from the planet, I will learn to be silent and listen again.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.