I’ve always been drawn to the poet Theodore Roethke’s line, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” It’s the first line of an eponymous poem and unlike a lot of other Roethke poems, I feel I can almost, but not quite catch the meaning in it. But that doesn’t stop me from pondering the meaning of it, applying it sometimes to my own life or sometimes to our life and times as a society, wondering whether the poem’s meaning is only psychological or social in context.
At root the poem is, I think, about a man plumbing his own depths for insight and, you know, that gets kind of boring in the end. But because I like that first line so much, I also find myself wanting to ask the poet, in some imaginary conversation I have in my study when the house is dark and quiet, “what do you mean by the eye begins to see in a dark time?” And what is a dark time, anyway?
I mean, we all have our dark nights of the soul, times when we lose faith in all that has ever grounded us and kept us steady. Usually we veer back into the groundedness again either because we have been supported by blessed friends and good communities or because habit and routine is the anodyne that dulls us to despair.
But there are dark times that are not personal, but public and social and this particular presidential race strikes me as one of them. We are worried as a nation. We are holding our breath. Many of us are angry, some of us seeming nearly rabid with anger. Others are wringing their hands and fretting (I am in the hand-wringing category) and that’s when I want to ask Roethke what is it we can see in a dark time?
To some extent, I can answer that question. I believe that in a dark time we must remember history. And I also think we must study history. I don’t mean that in a flippant way, either. I think we do well to become serious students of history so that we know something about the cruelty of human actions, the institutionalization of evils, the repetitive pattern of human failings and why our ignorance of history leads us to repeat it.
But we don’t become willing students, I know that. And I’m no historian. I have an armchair scholar’s interest in medieval and twentieth century European history. I’ve probably forgotten more than I remember about the history of the ancient near east and the early church, all of which I studied in seminary.
Yet even my own limited knowledge has convinced me that we do well to know who we are as people who have variously waged wars and wrought wonders throughout our existence.
“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,” Roethke wrote and I want to believe and to hope that we can learn from our mistakes and rectify them. I want to believe that we can find veins of compassion in our collective consciousness and mine them to the betterment of the world. I want to not be too afraid of the darkness because I want to believe it can lead us into depths of knowledge that can improve rather than degrade our capacity to be good and loving to one another.
Perhaps what I hope to find in the dark time is to find the favorable wonder that contemporary poet and philosopher, Wendell Berry means when he says, says, “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight/And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings/and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”