When I first learned to read I fell in love with the printed word. After that I devoured as many books as I could get my hands on. Like many children, once in bed at night after I was supposed to be sleeping, I hid under the covers and read by flashlight. If I woke up ahead of my parents as I often did, I did, I pulled up my shade for more light, or perhaps again used my flashlight. Reading wherever I was every chance I got, I accumulated knowledge and stimulated my imagination giving me a rich childhood and a good basis for expansion as I grew older. I still love to read however I no longer use a flashlight under the covers nor do I fear the approaching footsteps of a parent suspicious of my eagerness to go to bed.
As I have grown older, darkness has taken on more of an impact for me. The dark winter hours mean I sleep more, which is enjoyable. However, nowadays I need more light to see by. With the onset of Daylight Saving and then the Equinox that is on its way, I will enjoy the longer hours of light. I appreciate being able to see more clearly later and later in the day. Yet were it not for the contrast of darkness or the shadows cast by the light, it would be more difficult for me to perceive the size, shape, and outlines of objects around me. Also, without the dark hours of winter the trees and perennials would not get the rest they need to rebirth themselves in the spring. As do I, nature needs both to function properly.
Darkness is as necessary to us as light. It is what helps us define and manage the world around us. Early in their development as we attempt to shield our children from making mistakes we teach them about right and wrong. Sometimes this is a tricky proposition. As one of my teachers used to say, there are no absolutes. We teach our children and young adults not to kill or cause harm or hurt to others. But then they join the armed services and find themselves given a gun to aim at someone who is called the enemy. So in that instance killing is right or so they are told now. Could that have something to do with why so many individuals return from combat with troubled minds?
The Equinox presents us with equal hours for day and night. After March 20th the days will be longer than the nights until the process reverses with the Solstice in June. Meanwhile the world around us will begin to wake up from its long winter sleep in the dark. Balance in all things and the achievement of that balance is one of the important goals of the universal natural process of growth and decay. In addition we too participate in this process as we learn and grow, shining the light of our understanding on the darkness of ignorance. It is the contrast between them together with our moral compass that guides us toward the wholeness that is made up of both sun and shadow, darkness and light.
As a child I looked forward to fall. I enjoyed the swish of the leaves as I shuffled through them and the crisp air redolent of the smell of burning from people’s yard clean ups. Each year I collected colorful leaves and treasured them until they dried up and crumbled. When my children were small we collected our favorites and ironed them between sheets of waxed paper. We’d tape them on the glass storm door or onto windowpanes. The wonderful variety of colors and the way the each leaf is uniquely designed by nature has always fascinated me.
Recently, driving down the highway I gazed with pleasure at the vista of the changing leaves. In some places they had already turned, and the autumn colors had emerged in a blanket of bright hues. However, in a few places summer’s green still predominated. Then I noticed an outstanding patch of red in the midst of a section of green leaves. It stood out so strongly that my eyes were drawn to it and lingered until I had driven past it. That particular section of leaves seemed so vivid compared with the usual display of roadside color.
The patch of brilliantly red leaves I had just passed wasn’t especially large, yet it overpowered my attention in a way that the conglomeration of greater color had not. As I drove I thought about the difference between it and the other colorful leaves that lined the roadside. I realized it was the contrast that made it so strong. I was reminded of how Shakespeare spoke of the light of a candle in the darkness saying: “So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” There is something about contrast that enhances the presence of what is outstandingly lovely to experience. The same is true of scarcity or of specialness; these enhance the way something is experienced.
I realized that my attention had been drawn to the brightness of the red against the darkness of the green. A hillside of lovely fall leaves is a beautiful sight to behold, yet without contrast my eyes soon grow used to it; I don’t see the view with as much interest or delight. The same thing applies to taste. If all the food on my plate is bland, it all begins to taste the same. If it is either entirely crunchy or entirely smooth I don’t enjoy it as much. With what I hear, the same applies: What makes Beethoven’s music so special to me is the interplay of loud and soft, thunderous and sweet.
This is also true with regard to life in general. I enjoy it when things go smoothly, when everything falls into place, when people show up when they’re supposed to. I am grateful for the excitement of winning, the feelings of accomplishment when I am praised. Yet without at least temporary failure, without glitches, without the serendipity of strange twists and turns, life would not be nearly as interesting or as vital. While I may lament a loss or mourn a missed opportunity, because of that contrast I am even more grateful for my gains and my successes.