How Darkness Can Sometimes Light the Way

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.”  Brene Brown.

I have found these last few months profoundly disorienting and I know from talking to clients, colleagues and friends that I am not alone. COVID-19 has been shockingly revelatory. It is as if it has shot dye through the organism of our planet and revealed all the organs and structures that are wounded, diseased or broken.  Many of us are seeing with new eyes what has been present all along and are feeling shock and sometimes shame at our own blindness. The pandemic has revealed deeply embedded inequity, neglect, injustice and racism. And, as I write this, we are in hurricane and wildfire season in many parts of North America, seasonal reminders of a planet in extreme distress.   

My natural propensity at times like this is to turn away from the darkness and look for light. Once the initial horror and shock have passed, to ask myself, can I see hope here? I rarely have to look far. The light is always there. Whether it is the resilience of people in Beirut digging out after their city was leveled by a massive explosion, or millions of protestors from all ethnicities gathering around the globe to protest the senseless murder of George Floyd, or closer to home, the heartbreakingly beautiful duet that Nathalie McMaster played alongside a video of Emily Tuck, the young teenager slain this spring in Nova Scotia by a mass murderer. Small glimpses of light appear everywhere in our despair.

And yet, despite my ability to find these flickers of light, this moment feels different. It feels as if my turning away from the darkness in favour of the light is not what is called for here. I wonder if looking for the light is, at this time, a form of continued denial, a form of “not seeing” something that is crying out to be seen. I feel called to look more deeply into the darkness, as challenging and painful as that is. Perhaps at times like this, it is better to keep the light turned off for awhile and just sit in the dark.

Light and dark illuminate each other when we are not afraid to look deeply. A painting without shadow is flat and lifeless; one without light is unseeable. Light and shadow are dependent on one another, they lean into each other for definition and wholeness.

Over the last few months, I’ve had many conversations about race, systemic injustice, climate change and deep, heartfelt questions about the kind of world we are leaving for our children in the most unexpected places. These issues are coming up in my conversations with leaders and colleagues in ways that they never have before. I often feel ill-equipped to enter them and I know that I am clumsy and blind to many of my own biases, my own privilege and to the hardships faced by many in my community and beyond. It is tempting to just not go there and yet, as I am learning, not going there is just another expression of privilege.

In her insightful and helpful book, The Person You Mean to Be, social scientist Dolly Chugh talks about how our desire to be and be perceived as good people gets in the way of us supporting positive change. When we feel our identity as “a good person” threatened, we stop listening and stop being open to learning about how we might be part of the problem. We either don’t engage or we engage in ways that do more harm than good. Chugh says that we are better off to think of ourselves as “goodish”, people of good intention who make mistakes and who have a lot to learn. Only through our willingness to listen deeply, to take responsibility for our own learning and to welcome challenge to our behaviour and our thinking, can we become true allies for change. If we let the light illuminate the darkness rather than obscure it, we can look more deeply into it, face it fully along with our shared culpability in creating it. Perhaps by fully embracing the darkness in our own natures and the world we have created, we can finally illuminate a way forward together as builders of a more just, fair and sustainable world.

For leaders, the invitation in this painful time is to ask the questions, what am I being asked to see here and how is that calling me to engage?

Photo Credit: Image from Free Photos by Pixabay

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About the author:

Cathy Jacob

Cathy brings a unique skill for deep listening, an unwavering belief in her clients and a gentle sense of humour to her coaching practice. She opened a full time coaching practice in 2004 and in 2009, she co-founded Fire Inside Leadership to expand the impact of leadership development and coaching in her community and beyond.

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