Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

I’ve been haunted lately by images and semi-visions of shadows, dreams of living darkness that consumes everything in its path. I had a vivid nightmare some weeks back where patches of shadow were sentient and hungry, and swallowed up both light and life. Darker than darkness, voids that reflect no light and absorb everything.

Last night I finally read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’d hesitated first about buying it, then about reading it, simply because of associations with a person no longer part of my life, but realised that was idiotic. A book that has had a hundred or more printings and sold over nine million copies cannot really be tainted by one person’s opinion of it. So I read it and am still thinking about it. I suspect I will read it again many times before finally writing about the book itself; I am writing here about some thoughts that have been sparked by it.

One of the central premises of Frankl’s book and indeed of the psychotherapy Frankl founded, Logotherapy, is that to live, people need to find meaning in their lives.

Life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable ones. Our main motivation for living is our will to find meaning in life. We have freedom to find meaning in what we do, and what we experience, or at least in the stand we take when faced with a situation of unchangeable suffering.

“We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” and that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”.

Now, Frankl survived concentration camps and therefore has in my opinion the crown when it comes to suffering and finding meaning in suffering. Anything I have experienced is nothing to what he survived. However, my old friend the Mad Priest has said on a number of occasions that comparing one person’s sufferings with that of another is both ludicrous and insulting: suffering is suffering.

This is what dear old Wiki says about Frankl’s views on depression:


Viktor Frankl believed depression occurred at the psychological, physiological, and spiritual levels. At the psychological level, he believed that feelings of inadequacy stem from undertaking tasks beyond our abilities. At the physiological level, he recognized a “vital low”, which he defined as a “diminishment of physical energy” Finally, Frankl believed that at the spiritual level, the depressed man faces tension between who he actually is in relation to what he should be. Frankl refers to this as the gaping abyss (Frankl; page 202). Finally Frankl suggests that if goals seem unreachable, an individual loses a sense of future and thus meaning resulting in depression. Thus logotherapy aims “to change the patient’s attitude toward her disease as well as toward her life as a task” (Frankl, page 200)

Reading this, I had a strong sense of this chiming with my own experiences and beliefs. I am not what I should be. But what should I be?

Lying in the bath this morning, I let my mind wander off by itself. It never goes very far but this time it came back with a few curious thoughts. I mused on my own name. I have two Christian names that both derive from Latin, and translated mean Living Light. It set me wondering whether light is harmed by darkness. The nightmares about the consuming shadows have shaken me rather a lot, and while I know that Light is merely a form of energy if you use purely physics, I started to wonder if in some sense darkness is something more sentient, more aggressive, an entity rather than simply the absence of light. Scientists among you might be tutting at this point. But metaphysicians and mystics have asked this question for millennia, about this apparent war between light and darkness.

Then I started musing about the word Logos. In Greek it means a number of things, and while it is often translated as WORD, it can also be translated as MEANING, hence Dr Frankl using the term logotherapy (literally, healing through meaning). In John’s Gospel, the term Logos is used as Word and refers to Jesus (probably):

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

So we are back to the struggle between light and dark, between life and death and between meaning and void.

My initial question, (Is light hurt by darkness) takes on a more personal meaning when aligned with this struggle. Are my efforts to exist in a meaningful way damaged by the rising tide of darkness that emerges both from within my own psyche and from the world beyond me? Can I integrate, indeed, should I integrate, my own darkness? Is life about keeping the dark at bay or is it about understanding that darkness is not evil but rather a different state of being essential to survival? Is not only my life but life on earth meaningless or meaningful?

In some of the most harrowing parts of the book, Frankl wrote of those who gave up their hold on life, those whose struggle to find meaning in their sufferings proved too much for them, and who lay down and became unresponsive to stimuli and died, even when their health was not as compromised as many. Often they would smoke a cigarette long hoarded as collateral for barter, clearly accepting that they might as well just enjoy that one simple pleasure and let go of their grip on life. I cannot help wondering now whether our collective consumerism and cultural hedonism is not somehow akin to this.

My own search for meaning in my life is a struggle right now. I had for a while thought that my writing, (which I pretentiously call My Work) might be a strong contender, but since I’ve hardly written anything worthwhile(fiction anyway) in over a year, I am not convinced this hits the spot. Perhaps my meaning still awaits my discovery of it. I can only hope so.  

11 thoughts on “Is Light hurt by Darkness? ~ searching for meaning in life

  1. I would also like to add that we cannot adopt someone else’s meaning but only find our own. And like dreams, a person’s meaning is a very personal thing and should not be criticised if it doesn’t fit our idea of what makes life meaningful for us. Sadly, this is so easy to do.


  2. I only found meaning when I stopped questioning, analysising, searching and started living my own truth, when I embraced the darkness as well as the light, when I surrendered and let go trusting the energy that created me. I wrote a poem about this … I will post it on my blog soon.. You have inspired me! Be Well. Be You.


  3. Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking posts. I enjoyed the reminder about Frankl, whom I read in grad school, and the Jungian discussion of light/dark as two sides of the same coin. I, too, have been in an unproductive and uninspired mode re my writing, but I’ve found that if I wait long enough–sometimes the wait can be measured in years–the desire eventually comes back. May yours return soon.


  4. Love this! Brought up one thought for now. And that is that darkness exists as a contrast. It gives me choices. Whether it comes from inside of me or outside as a struggle against my emotional, physical, or spiritual health, it is necessary because in the face of it I choose my next moment.


  5. Interesting thoughtful post.
    On one level I find the polarity made of dark and light pointless, and strongly feel that without the darkness to shine into light could never be experienced. Because of this my thoughts & vocabulary steer away from negative uses of the word darkness. But culturally it is all around, and even when we don’t really get meaning from things [like I just can’t feel new year as jan 1st], when they are “believed” in by our culture we cannot help but feel them, be influenced by them.

    I feel it is very important that each person makes their own meaning of life, we can say nothing against those beliifs unless we see harm being done. If the harm is being done the person themselves we can only eventually step back with equanimity and love in our hearts.

    Suffering is suffering – but some people can’t get beyond their view of what “real” suffering is. We discussed this in Quaker meeting recently. One person said that they could accept the smiling buddhist teachings of one person because he found out how they are sufferred in war etc. But someone coming through their own made sufferings is important too – we need to hear them lest we compare ourselves with those that suffer “properly” and come through it.

    there is the prayer said to have been found near a dead girl at Ravensbruck

    “Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. Do not remember all the sufferings they have inflicted upon us; remember the fruits we bear, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humanity, courage, generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgement, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.”

    This talks of how we find ourselves through the difficult times of our lives – whatever they be. Fairly recently my spiritual life took a huge leap – but blimey the road seems long – because I become very broken; at times I feel it was a great price to pay and imagine that I would have liked it to have happened a different way. How can we ever label anything qualitively?

    If the meaning you make leads to to live a compassionate loving life does it matter if you are athiest or following a religious teaching?

    May you find your meaning in every moment of your life – even if you have to wait for hindsight to help you! Bloody hell it’s hard sometimes.


  6. Viv, Frankl’s book is excellent, Many times when we struggle through difficult times, we want to give up. This may sound pie-in-the-sky, but the words of the song from the civil rights era in the US have given me strength time and again. “We shall overcome.” I’m going to get through this; I will not be vanquished…with God’s help, since I am a believer. Of course, there are periods when I waver and doubt, when I hover near despair, but then I go back and sing the song.

    Flo, thanks for the powerful and beautiful prayer found by the dead girl at Ravensbruck. I made a copy to keep.


  7. I should add that I have never experienced the worst kind of deep depression, so I don’t mean to imply that singing a song would bring a person out of a heavy depressive state. All of us get through our lives with different coping mechanisms, and what works for one may well not work for another.

    Jesus’ teachings to love God and love our neighbor and to do to others as we would be done to inform my life. And the loving is not about feelings but about actions. I’ll add that that I fail more often than I succeed in living up to my ideals.


  8. Thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments.
    @ailiana I shall look forward to the poem, do remind me when it is up.
    @Judy I appreciate the reminder that it does come back, that sense of being inspired and hope that it does so soon.
    @Betsy yes, indeed, it does provide a contrast and that is in itself a powerful thought.
    @Flo, yes, it is shockingly hard. And yes, whatever meaning one finds in one’s own life, I am not sure it matters if you follow a faith teaching or are a kindly atheist.
    @Grandmere. Yes, love is the answer to most deep questions.
    It is good to know so many have understood this most painful of questions: what is the meaning of my life.


  9. I have my experiences with that darkness and with Frankl’s book(s) and I wonder if the darkness helps define (give meaning) to our individual flames (soul/spirit). I also think of the first of the noble truths of Buddhism

    “What is the Noble Truth of Suffering? Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering: in short the five categories affected by clinging are suffering.

    There is this Noble Truth of Suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

    This Noble Truth must be penetrated by fully understanding suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.

    This Noble Truth has been penetrated by fully understanding suffering: such was the vision, insight, wisdom, knowing and light that arose in me about things not heard before.”

    [Samyutta Nikaya LVI, 11]

    As you can see, the “light” is a vital part of the process of being alive as is the darkness (suffering).


  10. Firstly, totally agree with the Mad Priest, suffering is suffering.

    Secondly, I find myself in a bit constant struggle for meaning, a reason to alive and to live. So far no answers. So this has struck a loud chord with me.

    On the nature of darkness, ignoring the purely physical lack of reflected photons, I believe there is a darkness in life. It can be experienced as depression, and depression certainly feels like a yawning darkness that snuffs out the light of personal meaning and hope. But that darkness is part of every life, it is part of a healthy mind. When it has grown to dominate, then there is depression et al. So we must not seek to eliminate it but to understand and tame it as part of ourselves. Till then we must walk in darkness and face toward our own light.


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