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The Thorns In My Side} ?> The moon in the sky is setting in the west. We’re only a couple of days away from the new moon and what is visible above, to quote my daughter, looks like someone tried to use a hole-punch in the sky and failed miserably. We are also a little more than a month away from the longest night of the year on the winter solstice. More time is spent in darkness than it is spent in light and I wait impatiently for the long days of warm sunshine to return.
For whatever reason, human beings have found darkness undesirable. Of course, this may be because our eyes don’t function well in the dark and we get a lot of our cues about sleep, meal times, and periods of activity from the amount of light we receive during the day. Light is so very important to us.
By “light,” I refer to the physical manifestation, but also the happy moments in life—the birth of a child, the achievement of a life goal, the marriage to a spouse. These things I’ve experienced and I treasure these memories greatly. But life also has darkness—failure at a job, the illness of a loved one, the sudden death of a family member. These are dark times. In our minds, we suppress these, we avoid talking about them, and, when we do discuss them, we get it over with quickly. We love the light and avoid the dark times in our lives.
But the fact is, we need the darkness. I need the thorns in my side.
In the book series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams, the theme of darkness, especially darkness of winter and cold, is prevalent. The story starts innocently enough in times of light and warmth but, as the series progresses, increasingly more time is spent in shadow. Whole chapters and sections are dedicated to the coldness of the north, the shadows of the storm, and the blackness found in deep underground cities and caverns. The primary villain of the story, the Sithi Stormking Ineluki, is an undead creature that appears in the icy cold of winter.
Throughout the series, it seems that the blackness and cold is taking over and there is very little hope left. The penultimate chapter is full of visions of darkness, shadow, black shapes, dark fire, and gloom. Even the parts that describe the flashing magic of the swords Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn are written in such a way that the little bit of light described is sucked away into the depths of shadow and cold. Though the heroes are triumphant, darkness surrounds them.
The Otherland series, also by Tad Williams, is likewise very dark. It takes the readers into an ever collapsing virtual world. The absolute end (or is it) of the Grail Network (the virtual world that rivaled reality) is described by the protagonist, Renee, as having the darkness fold in on them. All that was light was gone, the being at the center of the network had vanished, and there was nothing left but darkness.
Yet, there is the promise of hope. In Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Simon and the others crawl up, literally, out of the rubble. In Otherland, the characters return to the real world of human beings, everyday life, and daylight. After the dark ending, after evil is wrapped up and devoured in its own darkness, the survivors find the beginnings of healing and restoration in the warmth and daylight.
This is why I have come to recognize and treasure even the dark times in my life. The trauma of cancer in my wife’s life actually led us to a greater intimacy in our shared experience. The tragic death of my mother motivated me to refocus my life on matters of faith. Without those thorns in my side, without those dark times in my life, I would be missing the light that eventually returned. Additionally, it is the contrast of those dark times, the sadness, fear, and grief, that has made me value the good times in my life all the more. I treasure every smile from my wife and I find greater joy in my own children and how they carry on the legacy of my mother. Perhaps this is why, at times, we are allowed to experience tragedy or sorrow. Not because the tragedy and sorrow are good, but so that we can better appreciate the times of triumph and joy.
It is to those who have lived or experienced dark times of life that those times of hope and joy have the greatest meaning. Whether it is a personal darkness of depression or grief, a darkness of mistakes and mishaps, or the darkness of trauma and fear, when a triumph occurs or a hope realized comes about, the refreshment and relief is so sharp that it brings tears. Those who have never known the sadness wonder at those tears. The rest of us? Not so much.