Fear of the dark
“I will not call them terrorists: they are criminals,” I wrote recently on my Facebook page – stirring some controversy. “They commit crimes against their fellow citizens and against their faith. I will not dignify their crimes as terrorism because I am not terrified, I am only deeply saddened by their savage ignorance. They remind me to watch for the sad savage ignorance that stirs also within me.”
A reader took me to task for that, believing that I had minimized the horrific events in Paris, Colorado Springs, and now San Bernardino. (I deeply hope there are no more before these words I am writing see print.) No: I am describing them as criminal actions rather than as political or religious statements. The people some call terrorists are not “just” criminals, they are precisely criminals – against civilization, and against humanity.
But in addressing them as such it becomes important to address our own culpability as well, for although we have no direct control over the wrongdoing of others, we do – and we must – have responsibility for our own. This has nothing to do with excusing the inexcusable wrong done by others, and everything to do with addressing wrong – wherever it is done.
Pope Francis recently said that fundamentalism is a disease all religions are vulnerable to, and that it “is always a tragedy. It is not religious, it lacks God, it is idolatrous.” Fundamentalism can bring religion to the level of superstition, of simplistic beliefs that perpetuate problems in a fear of the dark. Every region’s religion has its fundamentalists, and it’s usually among them that the fights break out. Now it seems the extreme voices are urging civilization to an unnecessary Armageddon.
Mental health, it has been said, is the capacity to be resilient in the face of ambiguity, to not reduce matters to confrontations of black versus white, but to recognize their dynamic interdependence. “We must beware,” Carl Jung wrote, “of thinking of good and evil as absolute opposites.” They may not even be absolutes, except in the reductive human mind.
Good and evil are among the names we use to indicate the two forces that revolve about one another to drive this human condition, weaving the warp with the weft to create a fabric of reality that we think we know. It should be remembered that the snake and the apple each grew on the Tree of Knowledge – one could say Assumption – of Good and Evil. This was the “Original Sin” that lies at the origin of all three Mosaic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Voltaire once said: “Certainly any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil… This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.”
It is interesting to note that, while nothing may seem as rigidly opposed as the nouns “night” and “day”, “morning” and “evening” are the leveraging verbs (ending as they do with their mutual suffix “-ing”) that bring night into day, and day back into night. Similarly, “summer” and “winter” name fixed conditions, while “fall” and “spring” activate the year – as in the Chinese symbol taijitu in which yin and yang circle one another. This is how we move forward, out of a vicious circle and into the spiral of life: the helix of DNA, and the whorl of our galaxy.
And so, once again, we approach the shortest day and the longest night: the winter solstice – this time at 8:49 Monday evening, Dec. 21. At that moment our world will have tilted farthest from our sun – so far that we will feel that we must return from the dark threat of complete obliteration.
I remember, as a young child, being frightened of the dark. Night held its terrors for me – until a reassuring parent would turn on the light, letting me know there was nothing more dangerous than my fears hiding in the darkness. Nature abhors nothing, except a vacuum – if we do not know something we will invent something to know. And so we will fill the dark abyss of the unknown with conjecture, and – often – apprehension.
We are social animals, and so we will gather bravely to celebrate the survival of the light through the darkest night, according to the traditions of the world: Pancha Ganapati, Boddhi, Dongzhi, Yule, Sol Invictus, Hanukkah, Santa Lucia, Advent and Christmas, Kwanzaa. We will pull our chairs up to the table, give thanks, and toast the year. We will eat and we will drink, and there will be music – and so we will nourish ourselves before our long climb out of the dark fundus of this year’s conclusion. Let us do this without despair – with hope, and not the fear that summons what it is we fear.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and the executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.