when the sun sets (archived post)

by benjamin hollon on april 25, 2020

Darkness has something about it that inspires fear. There's a quality of the unknown, of potential enemies lying in wait somewhere beyond the threshold of sight. Often our minds tend to create fantasies of monsters prepared to ambush us if we venture out into the void.

The darkness also seems to amplify fears that are already present. For example, in I Am Malala by Malala Yousafazi, her father says, "At night our fear is strong...but in the morning, in the light, we find our courage again."

What is it about the night that steals courage? Is there a quality of the darkness that lends itself to fear and uncertainty? Perhaps it is the feeling that time has stopped. When I go outside on a dark night, time seems to stand still. Nothing happens, and the solitude extends in all directions. I get a feeling that I'm a tiny person in a big world. The air seems to breathe of stillness, of the calm before the storm. It doesn't matter if there is no storm; my brain makes it up.

On the other hand, could it be that humans are naturally afraid and that it is only the light that gives us courage? Does the lack of light return us to our natural, suspicious, state?

Perhaps it's a mix of both. I know that there are times at night when I feel unnaturally fearful, and there are times in the day when I feel more courageous than usual. Perhaps each has an effect that it amplifies. Maybe there's something in us already that decides whether we are fearful or brave, and then the day or night amplifies that.

Fear of the night as described in I Am Malala reminds me of a passage from Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. In Part Two, Book Three, Chapter Five, Cosette, a small girl, is being forced to fetch water from a spring at night. Hugo states some fascinating thoughts about the darkness: "Darkness makes the brain giddy. Man needs light; whoever plunges into the opposite of day feels his heart chilled. When the eye sees blackness, the mind sees trouble. In an eclipse, in night, in the sooty darkness, there is anxiety even to the strongest. Nobody walks alone at night in the forest without trembling. ... You breathe in the odours of the great black void. You are afraid and are tempted to look behind you. ... There is no bravery which does not shudder and feel the nearness of anguish."

The vivid imagery used by Hugo helps to drive in the feeling of terror that can come when you find yourself outdoors. I've felt it. Cosette felt it. You probably have, too.

There's definitely something in his claim that humankind needs light. As a diurnal species, light is a fundamental aspect of our lives that we don't like changed. Anything else feels unnatural, and it's a quick jump from unnatural to supernatural. When anything doesn't feel right, we build up fantasies of monsters or demons and end up scaring ourselves silly.

Even so, darkness is not always frightening. In some cases, I find darkness cozy. I like the feeling of being safe inside during a storm or lying surrounded by quiet. However, I probably wouldn't want to venture outside during the storm. It's not the darkness that makes us feel safe; it's our safety from it.

Whether you feel cozy or scared when surrounded by darkness, I'm sure that at some point in your life, you've woken up, scared by a clap of thunder. Similarly, you've probably been out walking, heard footsteps behind you, and imagined something terrible. That's just human. We all tend to take the unknown and turn it into something awful.

We're all afraid of the dark. It may be at different levels, but we all have that tendency to invent horrors when we don't know what's ahead.

There's hope, though. There is a second half to the I Am Malala quote. With the light, our courage returns. As John 1:5 says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." No matter how often we fall into the fear of darkness, the light will always return and, with it, our courage.

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