The Dark and the Whole

The Dark and the Whole

On Darkness and Oneness

the light within the storm  Photograph © Colleen Watson-Turner

There is so much we don’t know, and to write truthfully about a life, your own or your mother’s, or a celebrated figure’s, an event, a crisis, another culture is to engage repeatedly with those patches of darkness, those nights of history, those places of unknowing. Solnit, R. (2014), p.

Rebecca Solnit* is commenting on something that Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal on Jan. 18, 1915 as the First World War was leading to such affliction, suffering and heartbreak. She wrote, “The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” Solnit understands Woolf’s darkness as uncertainty of not being able to see what is ahead—a good thing to hold as fundamental to persons as well as futures. She says,

[Woolf] is calling for circumstances that do not compel the unity of identity that is a limitation or even repression. It’s often noted that she does this for her characters in her novels. Less often than, in her essays, she exemplifies it in the investigative, critical voice that celebrates and expands, and demands it in her insistence on multiplicity, on irreducibility, and maybe on mystery, if mystery is the capacity of something to keep becoming, to go beyond, to be uncircumscribable, to contain more.  (pp. 99-100).

Not knowing for sure, there are still possibilities–perhaps that something better is still achievable. The dark story may still hold moments of compassion or generosity; it may end in a different place. The horizon may shift. More will be seen.

Even when a life has been completed, the story of who the person was is not completed and never will be, and perhaps, never should be. My father was in the trenches in France during that First World War at the age of 17. He had a dark side. Perhaps as a result of his war experiences, perhaps as a result of the way these experiences affected who he was and his personhood as a whole. The suffering and scars went deep for him and affected those closest to him. He had an unpredictable temper, black moods, and a fatal flaw in his need for power, love, and admiration that no one could fulfill. While this was true for how we knew him, there was much more. He had great warmth, humour, and creativity. You could say his darkness was darker and his brightness brighter than most people.

Yet at the heart of his life was a passion for social justice, and a belief that we are indeed our brother’s keeper (he felt this as deeply as any Christian yet he was an agnostic and no lover of organized religions). He came to deplore wars and nationalistic pride and was a pacifist. My father accepted the responsibilities these convictions brought with them and fought for the rights of workers throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. He helped to organize unions and walked picket lines with striking workers. I remember one occasion where he stood with the women from Woolworth’s (a five and dime type of department store) in a strike he helped organize because he believed forming a union would bring them a living wage and job security—something few women had.

He loved the outdoors, creating family rituals, and teaching all the neighbourhood kids games we could play with a few cans or a ball. He was a sentimental man who cried at weddings on television and a storyteller with a tendency to exaggeration and holding the floor for what could seem like forever. How I remember him and how I feel about him as a father and as a human being has continued to change as I change. I will never capture all of who he was and like Woolf, feel that is a good thing.

We can look at persons as wholes, as embodying singularity and a oneness that contains a world. Or as so inextricably connected to everyone, every event, and everything else that we are confounded in our attempts to know who they are with any certainty. How much we can bear is perhaps how much we can see or understand of a person close to us or of what it means to be human. It is not easy to recognize or accept all that is below the surface of someone you feel close to.

I find I need vision to see the good within all humans; a lot of moral courage to face what history tells of human destructiveness; and greater sensitivity to see the compassion of others as their beauty. To understand that the seemingly ordinary people I see on the street all have whole lives and hidden depths, unrealized talents and dreams takes heart, and willingness to forego judgements. It seems like a crucial understanding. I often fall short. I have found models of this openness and kindness in my life and in my reading and I continue to feel this is an essential life task for all of us.

In describing the nature of the world, naturalist Sigurd Olson talks of an attitude of facing, seeing all that life contains, it’s joys and sorrows, and being able to feel in accord with it, a part of that world.

Oneness is a sense of communion vital to a [hu]man’s mental well-being and to his [or her] survival. It does not come just by being called upon; far more than a point of view, a permanent attitude that colours all we do. . . . Oneness recognizes all things, the harsh with the benevolent, the cruel with the kind, violence with peace—all of it belonging to those who know it. Oneness can be felt anywhere on a city street, in a quiet pool, at home, or on some raging ocean coast. It does away with fear. (Sigurd Olson (1976/1997) Reflections from the North Country, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, p. 79)

Oh, to be able to feel and keep that sense of communion, to see the beggar and know he is also me. A soul that is part of the world’s soul. A sorrow that is part of the beauty and the anguish of the world, a part of the all that is in me and beyond me. Oneness, darkness, and light.

*In Solnit, ((2014), “Woolf;s Darkness: Embracing the Inexplicable.” pp. 85-106.




Comments are closed.