I See a Darkness

By Jeff Mallinson

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Perhaps Dan and I overshared on this week’s podcast. Of course, we didn’t mean to bring anyone down, or act like self-indulgent Hamlets, bathing in their own existential gloom. Nonetheless, our conversation frankly revealed where we were at when we recorded the show.

Here’s what was getting me down: I had had an extraordinarily positive spring semester. Every morning, I woke up contemplating what a blessing it was that I had the opportunity to point people to the power and promise of God’s new logic. At the start of this term, however, I found that a few clouds of sorrow had threatened to darken my bright vision. There were several circumstances behind this, I’m sure. The stress of summer travel to Las Vegas, the mountains, and China may have added to a bit of crankiness. What hit me harder was that, during the first week of the semester, a former colleague, mentor, and friend had died of cancer. I didn’t like how things ended for him. He may have been content, but I wasn’t. I thought he deserved more earthly vindication, more notoriety, more satisfaction.

Reflecting on the challenges of my own career and the reality of death for all of us, I started to wonder if I wasn’t being naive in ending each podcast with the refrain: “Everything’s going to be ok.” I knew that this phrase wasn’t in any way a denial of the many trials of existence this mortal coil. It comes from the insights of Peter Berger in A Rumor of Angels, a line from T.S. Eliot, something Julian of Norwich experienced mystically, and of course—at root—biblical eschatology itself. Nonetheless, from where I stood, I had to confess to Dan that light at the end of the tunnel was temporarily hidden from me.

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Was I staring down just the same old thing, day after day? Was I trapped by forces beyond my control, and thus unable to live life authentically? Was anyone free, in fact? Were we all stuck? And if we were all stuck, wasn’t the sad reality of this life that, while we tend to fear spectacular threats like sharks, axe murderers, and nuclear annihilation, what usually gets us is …  just the regular grind of living. We get older, bored, and slower. Our bones ache, we retire, we drool, we fade, we fall, and then we sleep.

So we called the show “The Fall.” The multiple meanings were intentional. We live in a fallen world. We occasionally fall from our emotional peaks. The world gets darker and darker this time of year. Our lives in this existence, despite a rumor of eternal hope, get darker and darker in practical ways. We might imagine the golden years of our lives are like autumn: pretty, filled with sweaters, grandchildren sipping hot chocolate, and anticipation of Christmas. But we know not everyone’s final chapters are as pleasant as the life insurance, Viagra, and cholesterol medication commercials represent. Sometimes, we all must stare down darkness.

So what’s a wayfaring stranger to do? Talk it out, I suppose. And that’s what Dan and I did. We reflected on our first show, entitled “Evil” (an episode Dan finds particularly uncomfortable to recall, since the quality and flow wasn’t quite up to speed in those first few shows). He recalls that, despite all the things we talked about fearing, the most dreadful moment of his life might well be an evening when he stared out into the rough, darkening, North Sea, from the shores of St. Andrews, Scotland, listening to Johnny Cash and Bonnie Prince Billy singing the song, “I See a Darkness.” Silly, right? Fearing seas and songs? Not exactly. I suspect that the fear Dan encountered is fear itself. 

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I didn’t have that same exact experience as Dan had, but I first heard that tune amidst a season personal difficulty, several years ago. Permit me to quote the lyrics in their entirety. It will help make my point.

Well, you’re my friend and can you see,

Many times we’ve been out drinking,

Many times we’ve shared our thoughts,

But did you ever, ever notice, the kind of thoughts I got?

Well, you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know.

And you know I have a drive to live, I won’t let go.

But can you see this opposition comes rising up sometimes?

That it’s dreadful imposition, comes blacking in my mind.

And that I see a darkness …

Did you know how much I love you?

Is a hope that somehow you,

Can save me from this darkness.

Well, I hope that someday, buddy, we have peace in our lives.

Together or apart, alone or with our wives.

And we can stop our whoring and pull the smiles inside.

And light it up forever and never go to sleep.

My best unbeaten brother, this isn’t all I see.

Oh, no, I see a darkness …

Did you know how much I love you?

Is a hope that somehow you,

Can save me from this darkness.

These lyrics convey the two countervailing sentiments I experienced recently. Even on dark days, I still wake up glad for the blessing I don’t deserve: a calling to teach young adults about the good, true and beautiful. With such a blessing, I find joy in getting apathetic students to care, grumpy colleagues to see they are loved, and everyone I meet to know that everything, ultimately, will be ok. But there is also that “opposition” that comes “a-rising up sometimes.” That’s the way of things. I suppose, despite my theological commitment to the idea that we live in the penultimate world, that we can establish no utopias, and that reliance on religious euphoria is ephemeral. In other words, in failing to anticipate this emotional-spiritual fall, I wasn’t thinking enough like a Lutheran. I relent. I repent. Uncle! Luther was right. We live in a tension between the already and the not yet. The enthusiasts’ dream for a spiritual life built on religious experience is dangerous. I knew it, but now I know it. So enough of all this silliness, which I wanted to share in order to point, however imperfectly, at a prescription for healing, should you find yourself in a similar tunnel of darkness, temporarily unable to see light.

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Since we live in a penultimate reality, we must muddle on, as Dan has recently suggested, being content with the fact that we await answers that may not be immediately at hand. This was also advice Dan gave me around the time of the show’s recording, and it was helpful. Without any particular effort on my part, things brightened up.  So, I guess I just waited a bit for the clouds to clear. Or maybe things could brighten up for another significant reason: I got to talk about the darkness with Dan.

My favorite moment in the song above is when Johnny Cash sings: “My best unbeaten brother, this isn’t all I see.” We need to hear these words from unbeaten brothers. We need a community that helps us by standing on hills and shouting to our valleys: “There’s more than darkness out there. Press on.” Dan’s frequent ability to pull me up out of gloom are invaluable to me. For this reason, podcast often becomes vital therapy for me, because I have the good fortune of knowing a fellow traveler who, when we get stuck, can help “save us from this darkness.”

Here’s where one might expect a Bible verse or two, saying everything works out just as God wants it. We’ll get there in the weeks ahead. I really do believe in the ultimate, and that all manner of things shall be well. But, as with this week’s show, I’m not interested in tossing out a final answer too quickly. As Bonhoeffer once said, precisely because we trust in the ultimate, we can occasionally remain silent, weeping beside the world’s Jobs, refraining from speaking ultimate answers. Even when we remain silent, we become the masks of God to our hurting neighbors by our very presence. Thus, I’m forever indebted to my friend Dan (I hope he knows how much I love him) for being the mask of God to me when I’m bummed out. It’s not just his advice that helps. It’s that he too has seen the darkness. The shared struggle is the key to our hope for our healing. We can’t do this alone. We need to hear the promise when we can’t see the promise. Cultivate true friendships, therefore. Put yourself in the way of the clear proclamation that all will be well. If you don’t have a Dan in your life, and even if you feel abandoned by the whole human race, perhaps my words will have to do for now:

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Dear fellow wayfarer, I’ve most definitely seen a darkness. But I’ve also most certainly glimpsed the uncreated light that can neither be understood nor overcome by that darkness. Press on and trust that everything will be ok. When you come to actually see that I’m right, perhaps you’ll do me the favor of passing on this rumor to the next fellow traveler. Peace.

—The Wayfaring Stranger

Composed while sipping a “Two Buck Chuck,” between chapters of Addiss and Lombardo’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

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