Starting a little series (for lack of a better term) about the wisdom I’ve been provided through time spent in the wilderness. God has made metaphors of certain experiences on the trail, camping, and walking among trees and mountains which have created insightful parallels for life at home. These posts are to share those illustrations as I felt they were revealed to me – to “pay it forward” so to speak. I write them not because I think them revelational, but maybe because someone else out there needs these illustrations too. So, perhaps this is for you.
1. scotopia – (noun) the ability of the eye to adjust for night vision, coming from the Greek skotos (darkness) and -opia (condition of sight). So, literally, “darkness sight.”
Part of my job has required overnight camping in the Sierra. And having a regular schedule of spending nights outdoors each week has made me much more aware of darkness. At home (as I have come to realize) there is an overabundance of light, all of the time – ceiling light, desk lamp, computer screen, refrigerator light, bathroom light, living room lamp, cell phone screen. You could literally operate in such a way as to never encounter darkness at all.
But overnighting in the Sierra – there is only so much a headlamp can do to stave away the darkness. There is also battery life to think about. Headlamps are, arguably, one of the more important items to bring in your pack, I’d be rather dismayed if I had left it behind or if the batteries died. And, speaking for the Small Bladder Club (hollar!) – you have to get up in the middle of the night most if not all nights…multiple times. Navigating in the darkness to find a pee spot without a headlamp does not often go well.
However, on one such night, after I’d used the headlamp to navigate successfully, I turned it off on the way back to my tent. I was curious just how dark darkness could get, and whether or not I might actually be able to see things I couldn’t see in the light.
The first few moments of this is unsettling. You feel as if you have gone blind, and you can see nothing at all. Everything is black – one solid plane of darkness and you stand, somewhat paralyzed, gazing into an empty sea that threatens to drown you. This darkness, causes you gaze outward from yourself. You feel yourself vulnerable, having momentarily lost the sense you are (arguably) most dependent on for controlling your own feelings of security and notions of direction – sight. Hence, you look for strength and direction from another source. You gaze up.
And, oh, what a wondrous up.
Without the light pollution of artificial light, stars come alive in a way you’ve never seen before. They come alive in numbers you’ve never seen before. You think you’ve seen the stars at home, and then you really see the stars, and that only comes by letting yourself dwell in darkness for a while. The longer you let your eyes adjust, the more stars you see, until you’ve lost track of how many you can count, until you are breathless in the wonder of it all. It is in this moment that you perhaps get the closest to understanding of the word eternal.
And then there is moonlight, sometimes so strong it emits a glow you feel you might be burned by. It lights up the landscape like a Winter Wonderland: everything in a soft white hue, as if every surface were dusted in glowing snowflakes. On such nights, you hardly think sunlight necessary, the landscape is so defined in the soft light that it makes the sun seem ostentatious.
But even if the moon is just a sliver, as you embrace the darkness your eyes rapidly adapt to night sight. It is truly amazing how many details you can see as you accept, even embrace darkness, and come to know it as it is and not what you’ve always feared it to be. The delicacy and framing comfort of conifer silhouettes become sharper with each passing minute. They give you a sort of framing comfort to your general surroundings, and stand as lightless lampposts, providing you orientation. Sounds come alive too, the wind has a more articulate tone, you can better hear the musical flow of a stream, the rhythmic lapping of lake water against the granite shore. These sounds become a sort of sight, giving you an acoustic eye, if you will. If you are lucky, you might catch the sight of a bat flitting overhead or hear a bird digging for a grub in pine-needle carpet somewhere nearby. You hear (and hence see) yourself better too. With dimmer light, there are less visual distractions, which provide a greater ability to listen to your own thoughts. With the absence of light silence has a louder sound, and has quite a bit to say.
While darkness does cause you to gaze outward, it also causes you to be much more grounded to your present steps. You are forced into greater slowness and to greater awareness of the details of the ground beneath your feet. You become very appreciative of flat terrain with no tripping obstacles, but some part of you feels emboldened by your slowly growing ability to see without light. Due to this, an adventurous inner child comes out, and you find you are surprisingly confident in your ability to navigate obstacles in your path without the aid of bright light. In fact, there seems to be a light in darkness, and suddenly you realize you are seeing quite comfortably in the dark.
There have been many occasions in my life, especially over the past year, in which I feel I’m walking in darkness. This new career path is unfamiliar territory to me, and I don’t have a definitive horizon in sight and I’m not sure how to navigate the ground I’m on at the moment. Many days, I am uncertain if I’m even really able to see anything at all, and I can’t even see my way back from where I came.
Sometimes, most times, I really wish God would just shine a light down on the situation and reveal to me how what I’m doing now is going to link up to where He is taking me, and mostly I wish He’d just give a brief flash of light (even just a lighting bolt flash) unto the distant end point. But He has not.
I was thinking about this as I stood in the Sierra that night, looking up at the stars, with my headlamp switched off. And I began to think that maybe my desire for the bright light of direction was from a deeper fear of giving up control to God. Because, in the darkness, I am forced to look outward from myself for guidance, I am forced to look up. Because, in the darkness, I doubt.
A friend of mine died a few years ago from an unexpected head injury. Maybe a year after his death, while going through old letters, I found a folded scrap of paper with his familiar scrawl on it –
“Don’t doubt in the darkness what you knew in the light.”
I am not sure what prompted him to give me those words when he did, but I do know they have been words that have given and re-given me light in my life’s darkness. We have a tendency in our dark hours to throw into question all we’ve rested our strength, courage, and certainty upon. But (as when we find ourselves in darkness in the wilderness) if we can remove ourselves from the panic of light’s absence, we realize we still know a lot: we have a sense of presence from the people in our lives, we are still ourselves with a set of hopes and insecurities that define our particular being, and we still have bright memories from our past that can guide our presently dark sense of our futures.
And then things slowly come into focus – dark silhouettes of things we felt certain of when life was brighter and easier come to mind. We aren’t as certain of them as we were before, but the outline of them is there (like the conifer trees in the wilderness) standing as orienting lampposts to our present confusion and sorrow about life.
In the dark season, if we allow ourselves to learn how to see darkness differently, if we allow ourselves to adapt, we find we can see new things. Now we have eyes to better see and better understand the broken hearts of others, the commonalities you share with these neighbors and friends. As with the multiplying abundance of stars in a Sierra night sky when we let our eyes adjust, in dark seasons of life we develop a new ability to see and appreciate a multiplying abundance of small gestures of kindness and encouragement that we didn’t pause to take in before, and when you add these things up it is truly wondrous. When you add such blessing up you get a sense of the word eternal.
Life can take on a moonlit glow even when it is heavy, because even when things are hard, as we learn to have a figurative night sight, we come to find there are still many things to guide our steps by. The importance and value of friendships become sharper, and these friends remind us of things we knew in the light that we are doubting now. The gift of encouraging words becomes a much more melodic sound, like the sound of a stream at night, and we realize we had not paid attention to such word-gifts properly in the breezy ease of life-going-well, had not heard the particular wisdom and comfort they had to share.
And there is another hidden blessing in darkness – a forced slowness. It seems to me, that we are so in a hurry to live life in a fast-forward way. So focused on the destination and checking off the items on our “to do” list that we forget the journey entirely. We run through the journey and never notice the defining details along the way. Darkness causes us to slowdown. When life becomes less certain, we are not sure where to run to and hence have to slow down to a walk, and occasionally a standstill. We are a culture addicted to speed and instantaneous answers, so we don’t like stillness. We are revolted by slow. But, oh, how much there is to learn from slowing down, how much beauty there is to notice and take in. In such slowness we look around at the accents of our life, those relationships and experiences which are defining our journey, and even if in the dark about our future, we realize our present is quite bright.
Even in my darkness, my desire is to (as Ephesians 5 says) “walk as a child of light.” I want to reflect the confidence and courage that we can have even in our darkest hour, even when I really don’t believe I have either, because “…the Lord my God lightens my darkness” (Psalm 18:28).
And, I try to remember that even when we are in the first phase of adjusting to night sight, we still have Eyes that are seeing for us:
… the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:12)
Sometimes I stay in the blind phase a long time, or step back into it. I try to force my figurative headlamp on, wanting to orchestrate immediate answers to my confused questions about where I am and where I am going and I am frustrated or frightened by all the black around me. I want to run and not walk. But I just can’t see, and I try to be patient, but each day I open my eyes to a continued black sea, or so it seems.It is then I try to remember the verse above, that our night is as bright as day to God, that darkness is as light to Him, and He is seeing for us even when we cannot.
And maybe, if we can write this truth upon our hearts, we will develop an ever stronger scotopia too.