Essay from Jeff Rasley

Darkness and Light, Despair and Recovery

In a dark time, the eye begins to see.

Theodore Roethke was born in 1908 and died in 1963. The quote is the first line of his poem, In a Dark Time. Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954 for his book The Waking. He won the National Book Award for Poetry twice. Despite the accolades he received for achievements in his chosen craft, Roethke was a tortured soul. “Dark Time” reflects his struggle with madness. It has many allusions to a psyche filled with fear and dread. For example:

A man goes far to find out what he is –

Death of the self in a long, tearless night,

All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.

My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,

Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?

And yet, there is a hopeful note in other verses in the poem. Roethke struggled with mental illness, especially depression, but he did not let it extinguish his creativity. The darkness in his poetry is usually overcome by the light of hopeful change. The darkness of despair can be escaped. There is a way out of depression, if the light can be found.

Roethke was a nature lover. He found solace being outside in forests, fields, hills, or dales. But his soul seemed to respond as deeply to the dark side as to the bright side of the natural world. Nature inspired allusions to both darkness and light in Roethke’s poetry. There is the bloody evisceration of prey by the predator, and there is the shimmering surface of a tree-lined brook. Roethke understood that both are inherent in Nature and in human nature. We can’t have light without darkness nor darkness without light. They are yin and yang.

Humans may be unique in our capacity to despair, as well as our ability to recover from it. Another poet, May Sarton (1912 – 1995), in her Journal of Solitude, put it this way:

Does anything in nature despair except man? An animal with a foot caught in a trap does not seem to despair. It is too busy trying to survive. It is all closed in, to a kind of still, intense waiting. Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go.

Roethke thought humans must experience the dichotomy of the light and the dark. And so, his mental illness, loss of a professorship, and a failed love affair were dark experiences, but they became challenges essential to making him who he was. Living through those periods of darkness, as claimed in his poem, his eye began to see. And what it saw was light at the end of the tunnel. Roethke ends the poem so:

A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.

The mind enters itself, and God the mind,

And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

In your experience, does light always, eventually, follow darkness? I am sometimes haunted by dark thoughts. They usually come at night, when I wake up from a troubled sleep or I am having trouble falling asleep. I do not consciously welcome these thoughts into my mind. It feels like they come uninvited and unwanted, like they have surfaced from a murky subconscious level. Why am I unable to banish them forever and know they will never return? I don’t know. So far, light has always followed those dark thoughts and every other type of darkness in my life. But that is not true for everyone I have been close to.

Three close friends of mine committed suicide. I know why each one of them did it, and I am sure that two of the three thought that they could not find a way out of the dark place they were in, except through death. I hesitate to judge their decisions, but I think those two friends of mine could have found a way out of the darkness, if they had been willing to put in the time and work to find the light.

I wish Bob would have kept trying to find alternative ways to deal with his bi-polar condition. I wish Byron would have taken responsibility for his deception, accepted his marriage was over, and built a new life. But Bob had tried for over twenty years to find a satisfactory way to live with his mental illness, and finally gave up trying to find a way out of that darkness. I think Byron was so intensely ashamed of himself that he was convinced he did not have the strength to work his way back into the light with his family. He must have felt that he did not deserve forgiveness, so he sentenced himself to death.

If people see a lighted tunnel as they are dying, as some survivors of near death experiences claim, I hope Bob and Byron saw that light and could feel some warmth at the end.

Ray’s case is more difficult, because he killed his life-partner Juan and himself. Juan was an eminent physician and proud man, who lost the ability to control most of his faculties in his mid 80s. He wanted to die. Ray fulfilled Juan’s request and then immediately committed suicide. Ray left his estate to a school for Palestinian children. He let it be known that he preferred his remaining wealth to be spent on that worthy cause rather than dwindle over time maintaining a life he did not want to live without Juan. Ray thought that putting Juan out of his misery and dying at his side was the way out of the darkness that had descended on them when Juan became incapacitated.

I was surprised to learn of my friend’s murder-suicide, because I thought I had talked him out of the plan. Ray told me a week or so before he did it, what he planned to do. I thought I had convinced him to meet with a Quaker “clearance committee” to talk through the issues before he took any action. However, he executed his plan the day before he was scheduled to meet with the clearance committee.

Ray thought that ending Juan’s pain was the way out of the darkness for Juan. And without Juan, Ray thought he would never feel the light again. I know that Ray believed ending their lives together and giving $250,000 to a school for Palestinian children was the right thing to do. He was convinced that putting an end to Juan’s misery and ending his own life was the best way to end the darkness they were experiencing. Ray was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife, so he did not expect to see any light when his life ended. He just thought it would end.

As for us survivors, whether it is light, darkness, something else, or nothing at all that is at the end of this life, well, that is something we will eventually discover. If physical or emotional pain is terrible, and there is no hope for relief from the suffering, does death hold the only possibility of escape from that darkness into light? Will those who have faith in a lighted after-life be disappointed or rewarded for their faith? Does light always follow darkness, as Roethke implies, or will there only be darkness at the end of a lighted tunnel?

I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I agree with Roethke’s wisdom. There will be periods of light and darkness during our lives. That is natural and inevitable. The challenge is to find a way to use our dark times as opportunities for deep reflection, and then find a way back into the light. If we can find meaning in the darkness, and then find our way back into the light, Roethke’s assurance is that life will be even better. Do you believe it?

The enigmatic artist, M.C. Escher (1898 – 1972) wrote this in a letter to his son: A person who is lucidly aware of the miracles that surround him, who has learned to bear up under the loneliness, has made quite a bit of progress on the road to wisdom. Escher struggled with depression. Although his oeuvre now holds an honored place in modern art and eventually became popular with academic critics and the general public, he felt misunderstood by the critics and the art-buying public. His work was such a unique blend of mathematics, multi-dimensional perspective, optical illusion, fantasy and realism that it was and is weird and confounding. A common reaction to an Escher painting is, How did he do that!? What kept him working at his art, despite feeling unappreciated and misunderstood, was his sense of the miraculous in Nature and in human consciousness. Escher was convinced that, although it was a lonely one, he was “on the road to wisdom.”

May we each find that path.

This personal essay by Jeff Rasley is a chapter from his recently published book, 72 Wisdoms: A practical guide to make life more meaningful, published 2022, Midsummer Books.