Insight from Darkness

Insight often comes at night, or after a difficult moment. And it rarely comes as a finished project, but as a process that needs work.

My Senior Year of High School, the English teacher asked us to write either a fictional or non-fiction short story about an experience which brought insight. I wrote what I thought was a humorous story based on true events of walking home from school with my brother when I was 7 and he was 9. We were with a group of his friends and he turned to me and told me to do something that I knew was wrong, explaining that if I didn’t, surely the Boogie Man would cause terrible things to happen to me that evening. Now I believed in the Boogie Man and other monsters who colluded with older siblings and I did what he told me to do.

The insight came when my parents found out what I did. I was called into the living room and I knew by the look on their faces I had been busted. Blaming it on the Boogie Man wasn’t going to work and after initial denial, I received my punishment. I wrote in my essay, “That night I knew there was no more Boogie Man.”

The teacher wrote back a great comment. He wrote that he liked the detail that insight comes at night, but that rarely does it come with such clarity so quickly. I didn’t appreciate the comment at the time – I wanted my “A” with a comment about how good the paper was; but I appreciate the comment now. Insight does often come at night, or after a difficult moment – and it rarely comes as a finished project – but as a process that needs work.

Jacob is a young man who was experiencing darkness far beyond a big brother with fanciful stories and a personality that reveled in the attention that a little trouble brought him. He was running for his life from a brother who had vowed to kill him. Jacob, the homebody was separated from his family for the first time; and facing the web of deception and family dynamic that had left with the truth: He deceived. He stole. He caused deep hurt.

It’s no wonder that he lay his head down on a rock. The rock symbolized that life was hard and difficult. And in this moment of confusion and angst; as he consciously and unconsciously looked at who he was – he has this amazing dream of angels going up and down a ladder with God at the top reassuring him that God would assign the land he was in to Jacob and his descendants; and that Jacob’s descendants would be like “dust of the east.” God promises to protect him, be with him and fulfill the Divine promise. Jacob wakes up with a moment of startled insight, “Surely God was in this place and I, I didn’t know.” Insight seems to come in a moment in the dead of night.

Rabbi David Wolpe (Healer of Shattered Hearts, pp. 22 – 25) wrote that

We are best touched at night…Night is the primal state. Solid darkness subdues the confident bluster of our day…in the darkness we hear something…dark is a presence, a force that returns us to an earlier time that made shudder or wonder.” Wolpe continues, “Freed of vision, we inside. Primary concerns emerge.

Wolpe, Healer of Shattered Hearts, pp. 22 – 25

Night and darkness – not just physical night – sundown to sunrise – but the spiritual and emotional dark moments when we face ourselves with all of our painful truths is a moment of potential discovery. The depths night touches – they synthesis of fear, passion, intimacy, conflict and mystery – hold the opportunity for insight. We find new ways, we learn important truths.

Everyone here struggles with their own darkness. Each of us experiences night in our own ways. That darkness can overwhelm. The pain of facing our own truths would cause many to run away without turning back. Our forefather Jacob teaches us a different way. Jacob teaches that night is a time to learn, a time to listen, a time to begin a journey of transformation.

The challenge of the Jacob story is to let our painful moments, our disappointments in ourselves, or in life lead us to deeper insight and wisdom. I leafed through and read some reviews (Sports Illustrated, November 15, 2010) of a book is called Between a Rock and a Hard Place, which is the gripping story of Aron Ralston. It will come out as the movies 127 Hours in the days to come.  In 2003 Aron Ralston spent five days trapped in Blue John Canyon deep in the Utah wilderness, his right forearm pinned beneath an 800 pound boulder. He knew no help was coming because he hadn’t told anyone where he was going. Ultimately, he cut off his trapped arm with a dull blade in order to survive.

I thought the book would be about courage, will to survive, thoughts that he had while he was trapped – and that is a piece of it. But the most compelling part of the book is Ralston’s explanation of how the experience changed his life internally. He writes, “My life used to be all about heedless impulsiveness… I figured out that I not only want to connect with people, but that I need them.” He used his experience with night and darkness to come to a deeper understanding of who he wanted to be as a man.

My High School English teacher was right – insight usually takes time and effort.

That insight didn’t come in a flash. My High School English teacher was right – insight usually takes time and effort. Aron Ralston’s true insights from those days and nights trapped by the rock only emerged as he sat with them and struggled with them. “Coming out of [the incident] I felt more invincible and my overriding directive was not to let my amputation change me.” His deeper insight was to let it sink in how it did change him! He understands now that life is about relationships, love and responsibility. He still goes out into the wild and after his amputation has become the first person to summit alone and in winter all of Colorado’s 59 peaks of more than 14,000 feet; but now he leaves a note where he’s going.

We too can use the insight from our painful and dark moments to become the people we are capable of becoming. Jacob’s insights didn’t come with a snap of the fingers. In fact, when you read the story carefully, you see that right after his statement of awareness of God in a place he had not seen God before; he tries to strike a deal: “God – if you remain with me, protect me on this journey; give me bread to eat and clothes to wear – and if I return safe to my father’s house – then the Lord shall be my God.” Jacob hasn’t yet understood that you just can’t make a deal and everything will be all right.

It’s as if he has a sense of entitlement that does not understand that to truly realize dreams he has to work hard. God is in the details. Night brings insight and profound truth; but Jacob does not yet realize the deeper meaning of his dream. The ladders are real for him – but he must climb them one by one, rung by rung. Dreams are realized through effort and daily acts of attention. Rabbi David Wolpe writes

Jacob is certain that life can be tamed. He does not yet realize the tremendous work and attention that are indispensable to meaningful living.” Jacob assumes he can control life – as indicated in the deal he proposes to God. But we have no such control.

Jacob comes to this insight over time. He comes to realize that dreams are realized through effort and hard work. Peace comes only when we wrestle with our inner demons. Jacob’s important lesson is that in darkness comes insight – if we open our eyes; and in hard work and honest struggle comes realization of true dreams.

This morning I ask you to think about darkness – about the difficult times that all of us encounter and reflect on the insights and wisdom that grow from those moments. Think about dreams and the hard work required to truly realize dreams. Fuse the two themes together and know that through difficult moments and life’s pain, new dreams often grow. The Talmud teaches that “One cannot acquire Torah who has not failed in it.” It is in the moments of deepest failure and doubt that we reach deeper into ourselves to acquire wisdom and being dreaming wise dreams.

Rabbi Yochanan teaches in the Midrash that eye has a light part and a dark part; one can see only through the dark part. It is through the darkness that we find light and wisdom, and realize the character we are capable of achieving. May we hold onto our dreams as we refine them over the years. May we face the darkness moments in life as Jacob did – using our dreams and our pain as a step ladder we climb in order to become the people we were meant to be.