Darkness, Depression & Discernment

Michael Metzger

As you well know, Tuesday, June 21st, was the longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere – in terms of sunlight. The summer solstice occurs when the sun is farthest north and the length of time elapsed between sunrise and sunset is at the maximum for the year.  From June 21st until January 21st, the extent of natural sunlight will shrink and darkness will increase.

And that’s a depressing thought to many.  Researchers point to a disorder called SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) that is related to the shorter days in fall and winter and brain hormones and function.  Symptoms of SAD include extreme fatigue, increased need for sleep, cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain.  Researchers believe the shorter days result in a disturbance in a SAD sufferer’s biological clock.

I’m not making light of this malady (yes, pun intended); but is it possible SAD is a cultural phenomenon as much as it might also be biological?  The whole idea of “darkness” has an intriguing history in the Western world.  The Bible often associates it with evil.  Thus, the Western world (where SAD is mostly diagnosed), has undergone “a sustained assault on the nocturnal realm;” especially in the last 200 years.  This is according to A. Roger Ekrich, whose new book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, surveys the history of our modern world prior to – and since – the advent of artificial illumination (what he calls “the greatest symbol of modern progress”).  Ekrich suggests a link between our loathing of darkness, increased depression, and a loss of discernment on these matters.  If he’s right, turning out the lights – along with the computer and cell phone and getting a good night’s rest – might be a healthy move.

The key is in asking four questions: how ought we to think about darkness, why did people once fear it, what we can do to repair our deficiencies, and how will life be better if we modify our view of darkness?  These four inquiries mirror the four ideas found in the Judeo-Christian tradition: (1) how things ought to be, (2) what is – i.e., what are things really like in the real world, (3) what we can do to make things better, and (4) what will things be like some day when the world be fully restored.

How we ought to think about darkness: If you believe in Providence, it’s obvious that God designed the world to go dark on a daily basis.  Why the outage?  Primarily to get us to stop – stop working, playing, talking, eating, and being busy.  In our design, taking a daily “mini Sabbath” is a good thing. The word Sabbath actually means “cease,” more than “rest” as understood today.  It is not a word that refers to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of work.  Rather, it describes the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion.”1   The setting sun was a good time to stop and reflect.  This is why the Psalmist wrote: “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to his beloved even in their sleep.”2

Why we once feared darkness: Nighttime, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution (1790-1830), suffered from a longstanding presumption that little else of consequence transpired during this time.  “No occupation but sleepe, feed, and fart,” observed Jacobean poet Thomas Middleton.  Ekrich, who teaches at Virginia Tech, studied the period of 1500-1750 and notes that darkness was mostly associated with fear.  Ghosts, demons, spirits, banshees, vampires, and fairies were understood to venture abroad at night, and Satan himself was on the prowl.  All “doors, shutters, and windows were closed tight and latched,” and “seldom was God’s protection more valued than at night.”  It reminds me of the prayers my parents made my brothers and I recite every night – “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

What we can do to fix this: By the mid-18th century, all of these conditions began to change.  For a variety of reasons – “the rapid spread of scientific rationalism during the early stages of the Enlightenment,” the rise of “consumerism and nascent industrialization,” and “the leisured affluence of urban households” – many of the old fears about night diminished or vanished, according to Ekrich.  Now the race was on to capitalize on darkness; working into the night and through the weekend.  Today, we never stop.  For example, Americans are taking 10% less vacation time this year.  A growing number bring laptops and cell phones on vacation, checking email and voice mail daily.  True, Americans are far more productive than Europeans, but we also suffer from “unrelieved stress, absenteeism, rising medical costs, and the loss of time for life and family.”3 Case in point: Americans ingest 95% of the world’s psychotropic drugs.

Ominously, the dawn of the modern world, “with darkness diminished,” also means, according to Ekrich, that “opportunities for privacy, intimacy, and self-reflection will grow more scarce.”  Self-reflection is an integral part of emotional health.  It requires turning out the lights, being still, knowing God, knowing yourself, and knowing the influence of your surroundings. “Persistent depression,” noted Jose Ortega Y Gasset, “is only too clearly the sign that a man is living contrary to his vocation.”  Our work vocation was never meant to be 24/7/365. Depression might be the result of SAD.  But it might also be the result of PAR (Phone Always Ringing) and LAB (Lights Always Burning).  Why don’t you sleep on this idea?

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1 Creation and Blessing by Allen Ross, Baker Book House publishers, 1988. p.113-114
2 Psalm 127:2
3 Joe Robinson, founder of the Work to Live Campaign.

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