Finding the light

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
May 2nd, 2023
Finding the light

In March, I wrote about the challenge of walking in the dark, finding our way in life through a series of decisions guided in each case by unreliable and insufficient information. We are not prescient and we cannot expect to fully understand the implications of our decisions before we act. “Life moves forwards,” as Kierkegaard said, “but can only be understood backwards.” The world moves fast, and we have to live on its timetable, not our own. And so we walk in the dark looking for whatever light we can find to show the way. Now bathed in the sunshine of May on a small planet hurtling through space toward the longest day of the year in June, I am drawn to give equal time to the light.

The sun rises and we make a start, facing a day of 10,000 little decisions and one big one. Do I take the job offer in Connecticut or the one in Massachusetts? Buy the city townhouse or the suburban colonial? Move to live closer to my grown children or age in place for as long as possible?

In every case, there are no guarantees, and so we gather the available information, consulting the experts, the internet, family, trusted friends and, especially, our own internal compass. Perhaps it is the substrate of our unconscious yearnings that draws us to one option or the other, or maybe it is a clearer signal from tried and tested values that guide our way, but whatever we call it, it is a source of light.

The light comes early. Remember your grammar school classroom and the small posters on the wall just above the blackboard. Mine were something like Be Kind, Be A Friend, Obey Your Teachers, Respect Your Parents. Today you are more likely to see things like You’re Amazing, Learn, Play and Grow Together, Be Happy, Be Who You Are. The words and the emphasis change with the times, but the messages are all about cultivating the kind of positive attitudes and behaviors thought to make for success in school and life.

In the best of classrooms, our teachers gave us examples of happy, friendly, respectful, hardworking adults who were there to help us learn and grow. I learned that you had to be on time and, better yet, early if you wanted to get the engine of our kindergarten train set and not get stuck playing with a nondescript flat car. For me it was an aspirational goal, but it did get me moving in the morning. I occasionally got the engine and even learned to appreciate the charms of lesser rolling stock.

The light spreads across the land. Ideally the lessons of the classroom are amplified and reinforced in the family and, for some, by a religious faith or philosophy of life taught and modeled by parents and other respected adults.

All too often, one or more of these key elements is missing, and children are left to cope with an absent, impaired, or abusive parent or a community of adult caretakers who give little or no attention to helping them develop a moral compass.

As kids, we are hungry for grownups and even other kids to show us how to live, and we look for them everywhere. With all the valuable lessons I learned from my parents, I knew I needed more to fill the gaps that their imperfect lives left in my education. And so I learned to be bold from my adventurous friends and careful from the prudent ones.

Television’s Sergeant Preston of the Yukon taught me how to survive on a lake of cracking ice, and my high school guidance counselor helped me believe I could accomplish more than I thought possible. Now I smile to see my adult children finding mentors and friends to fill the gaps that my imperfect life has left in their development.

The light fades in the storm and returns when it passes. We often learn more from our mistakes and ill-advised choices than from our successes. We’ve all done plenty of things that seemed like a good idea at the time, only to conclude from an injured, diminished, or disappointed state that we will never do them again.

Chastened by the consequences of our folly, we use the word “enlightened” to describe our newfound understanding that there are good reasons for many of the do’s and don’ts that have been coming down to us from our earliest years. We ignore the wisdom of the ages at our peril, but we ignore it anyway. We ignore it because we are human, and that’s what humans do, that’s how humans learn.

The deepest darkness comes with depression, the black dog that any of us can be surprised to find waiting at our bedside ready to follow us until we can summon the resources to send him on his way. If we haven’t experienced this kind of darkness ourselves, chances are we have seen it in family or friends. In our work as psychologists, it is endemic. These storms too can pass, revealing a light that is brighter and more precious because it has been gone so long.

Light seeks light and its ultimate source, shining more brightly together. The spiritual dimension of our humanity calls us to a vision greater than ourselves. For many, that vision lives in religious faith with its precepts on how to live a good life. Many find their spirituality in cherished values not connected to formal religion. Community, art, music, the beauty of nature, the power of science, the care of our fragile planet can unite us in a vision that raises us above our individual concerns and highlights values that can guide our behavior. All of these are sources of light.

We walk in the dark by finding the light. It is there in the company of others sharing their own experiences of searching and finding what they need. It is there in the memory of our earliest life lessons from home and school, in the memory of those special people who have taught us by the example of their lives.

Light sparks in our triumphs and blazes out from the ruins of our mistakes. It shines in the values of religious faith or the causes dear to our hearts. Light comes to us though the power of our imagination as we dream and choose among possible futures. In solitude and silence, company and conversation, we find the light we need. When that happens, the darkness loses its dread and becomes an invitation to hope and, possibly, a prelude to joy.





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