In seminary, I had a friend who told a story about his three-year-old daughter as a way of emphasizing dark and light. Apparently, it was night and they were sitting in a parking lot in their car. They were having a conversation and his daughter became curious how she could see people in the parking lot even though it was dark. My friend turned on the dome light in his car and asked her what she saw. “I see myself,” she said. But then, when he turned off the light, she recognized her reflection was gone and she could see outside. He went on to explain that we need both lightness and darkness to appreciate the other.
December 21 is the winter solstice and is also known as the darkest night of the year, because it has the longest amount of night. Recognition of this darkness has inspired various groups to do special events around that date. For example, I have regularly participated in an annual homeless person’s memorial in Albany, done to honor the houseless who have died. Other places offer a longest night service or a blue Christmas event, recognizing how the darkness and the holidays can enhance sadness in grief.
This year, the extended darkness on December 21 seems especially significant, because it comes at the end of a difficult year for many of us. 2020 did not bring us perfect vision. In fact, it provided a lot of cloudiness.
As we wind down the year, we are nine months into a pandemic. If that weren’t challenging enough, we also had murder hornets (OK, maybe that one wasn’t as bad). We encountered some of the greatest racial tension since the 1960s — a reminder that our country has not progressed as far in the area of racial justice as some of us thought. We also experienced a very divisive election, encouraged by some to hate the other side rather than seeing it as a different perspective. However, amidst all these, perhaps the darkest event of 2020 was the toilet paper shortage.
You may read that last line with a laugh, but I think there may be some truth in it. When our state entered its first shutdown in the spring, people panicked. Toilet paper and other items were swept off the shelf in record numbers. As a result, we went weeks without TP on the shelves of stores. I say it could be the darkest event because it revealed the light — the dome light, that is.
As my friend showed his daughter in the midst of darkness, with the dome light on, all we see is ourselves. But when we turn that dome light off, we can once again see those around us in the darkness.
With the dome light on, we may choose to buy up several extra packages of toilet paper just to make sure we have enough, instead of leaving some behind on the shelf for others. With the dome light on, we may come to believe our perspective is the only perspective, rather than allowing room for others, whether that’s politically, religiously, or philosophically. With the dome light on, we will think we are alone and not be able to see there are others with us in this darkness.
There is no doubt 2020 has been a dark year. It is a year we will always remember; not for the good reasons. But we are not alone in it. This year has affected all of us in one way or another.
While it is difficult to admit that we may have had our dome light on, doing so could be a key to recognizing the difference once we turn it off. When we are able to see others out in the dark, we may become inspired to turn on our external lights instead.
Two examples of this stand out to me. Sticking with the vehicle image, headlights are good external lights. They allow us to see others, provide light so that others can see us, and brighten the surroundings enough so others may see the path too.
Another example of external lights are those we see during this season on many of the houses around us. This type of holiday light can provide others joy and a spirit of festivity. I have no doubt it was the longer darkness of December that helped to inspire the use of Christmas lights on houses, to help bring brightness during a dark time.
Yes, 2020 was a dark year all around. Even though we may be tempted to focus only on our own experiences during this time, it is important to remember we have all faced it together. Hopefully we can figure out how to use light that helps rather than to use light that blinds, for by doing this we will better see the people around us and recognize our shared struggles and joys, rather than thinking we’re alone in the dark. If we can do that, 2021 will likely be a brighter year for all of us.
Wes Sedlacek, M.Div., BCC is a board-certified chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains and has been doing chaplaincy for 15 years.