Light vs. Dark : Lesson from a Young Raccoon

Light vs. Dark : Lesson from a Young Raccoon

Light vs. Dark…

Light vs. Dark

Why is light better than dark as a cultural metaphor? The symbol of light as the Divine presence usually gets by without examination, yet, as I grow older, other parts of my day have begun to show the signature of goodness. Not just dawn, but sunset. Not merely light, but darkness. Ask yourself—what makes light a symbol of protection and dark a symbol of danger in so many parts of the world? The light-vs.-darkness metaphor travels cross-culturally among languages. From pale Scandinavians to the dark peoples who live nearer the equator, walking in the light brings contact with the divine presence while wandering in darkness often means separation from the good, safe path.

Complimentary expressions

Not always. Taoism offers its central symbol of the Yin-Yang, a ball equally divided between dark (yin) and light (yang), with a dot of the opposite quality inside each curved half. No superiority of light over dark here, just two complimentary expressions which summarize life.

Other spiritual masters speak positively of dark. Jesus told his disciples to retreat into a (dark?) closet, find quiet space, and commune with God. Muhammad had his cave, presumably without lighting. Even Buddha lingered among the shadows of the Bodhi tree before reaching his insights about the Four Noble Truths. Arguably, silent communion and darkness go together naturally, or why would we close our eyes to pray and lower the lights for meditation? Even Vulcans aboard United Federation of Planets starships meditate by candlelight.

Fifth century mystic Pseudo-Dionysius perhaps came as close as human tongues can get us:

As far as possible mount up with knowledge into union with the One who is above all being and knowledge; for by freeing thyself completely and unconditionally from thyself and from all things, thou shalt come to the superessential brightness of the divine darkness.  

(Thomas W. Shepherd, Friends in High Places, 3rd edition (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse Books, 2006), 55.)

The Young Raccoon

I love the Dionysian language, superessential brightness of the divine darkness. A few years ago, reading that passage started me thinking about what all people have in common in regard to light and dark. As I pondered, an incident from the past floated to mind. In 1987 I was completing my last full year as an Army Chaplain. Carol-Jean and I had just returned from a three-year assignment in Europe, and we were living temporarily in Post Guest House facilities at Ft. Monmouth, New Jersey, until regular housing became available.

Early one Saturday morning we took a walk around the periphery of the smallish Army base. As we strolled along, Carol-Jean noticed a small furry head jutting from the chain-link fence. It was a young raccoon who had tried to squeeze through the fence but got himself stuck.

He had been at it a while and looked exhausted. But he grew agitated as we approach. Carol-Jean knelt down and spoke softly to him, and the little guy drifted off to sleep. While she cooed the baby ‘coon, I flagged down a passing patrol car.

Of course, the NJ police cruiser flipped on its flashing lights and a gun-toting, smoky-bear policeman got out to offer assistance. When the nice, scary officer came to the fence, the little raccoon panicked, so I gently shook the chain links.

Fortunately, the little fellow was able to extricate his trapped head and stumbled under the nearby bushes, homeward bound after a long night. The story remains a Shepherd family classic, how CJ soothed the savage baby beast until mean ol’ Chaplain Tom shook him loose.

Broad Daylight, the Darkness of the Raccoon

We’ve laughed about this encounter for years. But I recently realized why it was so traumatic for the raccoon, even without the flashing lights and armed policeman. Raccoons are nocturnal. Yet, there he was, trapped in broad daylight, totally exposed and surrounded by danger. Humans, on the other hand, are diurnal, like the coyote, desert bighorn sheep, antelope, squirrel, and most eagles.

We sleep in the dark and work in the day. Darkness spells danger to diurnal animals like us. Humans quickly learned the night was full of creatures who might try to eat them—nocturnal hunters, like leopards, lions and tigers.

Look at our literature. European fairy tales show a recurrent theme: Don’t go into the dark woods alone, or the big bad wolf or wicked witch or something bad will eat you! But how would an intelligent, nocturnal species look at life?

Working the Night Shift

I’m currently writing Star Lawyers Book 4 – House of the Silent Moons. However, in my notes for the yet-untitled Star Lawyers Book 5, Tyler Matthews and his bioenergetic fiancé Suzie meet their first nocturnal space-faring species.

Captain-Father Urlis Tarkamin is both commander and chief priest of a starship manned by Eldirex, a rabbit-like species. Tarkamin ends a dinner he’s hosted for Tyler and Suzie with this benediction: “May the blessings of Holy Darkness descend upon you with its gloom of protection.”

The Universe is a vast, amazing habitat. Humanity has yet to meet any life form beyond this pale blue marble called Earth. When we do, I’m betting at least some of them will work the night shift.

Tom Shepherd

Tuscon, AZ

4 September 2018

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.