How to Not Be Afraid of the Dark

If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we could to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God? ~ Barbara Brown Taylor.

Avoiding the dark.

It’s something we do from the time we’re young.

And as many children would attest, an innocuous bedroom by day becomes a place filled with dangerous monsters hiding in the closet or under the bed by night.

Our fear of the dark is instinctual—if I were to guess, a survival mechanism we developed from our hunter gatherer days.

At this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, we’re unavoidably enveloped in darkness. We attempt to chase away the darkness with our beautiful holiday lights and decorations. But no matter how bright the lights, the darkness is never far away.

An encounter with darkness

I’ve long thought that I was completely over my fear of the dark. This myth was shattered when I found myself in the middle of Wyoming’s Bighorn National Forest at night this past summer.

I was on an epic road trip with my family and we were making our way back east to our home state of New York. That day, our plan was to drive from Yellowstone National Park to Sheridan, Wyoming. The only thing standing in our way? Bighorn National Forest located just west of Sheridan.

How did we end up in Bighorn after dark?

1. A late start to our day.

2. A dinner stop in Cody, WY. After dinner, we let our kids play in a nearby playground where we met another family on a road trip. We all hit it off and spent way more time there than we expected. Turns out they were distant cousins of someone in my wife’s family (one of a number of serendipitous encounters we experienced on our trip).

Our new friends were going to a Rodeo show that night. We were tempted to join them and just stay in town the night. But we decided to continue on, determined to make it to Sheridan.

By the time we hit Bighorn, the sun was going down. The darkness grew as we climbed to over 9000 feet. The darkness was so thick, so complete that the truck’s high beam could hardly pierce it.

To say I was scared would be an understatement.

We were in the middle of the wilderness.

What if our truck broke down as it strained to climb the steep elevations with a 6000 pound camper in tow? What if we hit one of those massive deer standing in the middle of the road? What if we were attacked by wild animals?

Up in the Bighorn Mountains I was forced to face the darkness full on. I couldn’t turn back, I couldn’t turn on the light. The only way out of the darkness was to go right through it.

At some point it dawned on me that my fears of the darkness outside were projections of my own internal fears—fears that were already present but simply magnified once I could no longer see where I was going.

What if I could have allowed myself to rest in this darkness? What if I’d pulled over for just a moment to take a look at the magnificent night sky? Did I miss an encounter with God that night?

The darkness is gentler than you think

The darkness we experienced in the wilderness is rare in our modern world. Even when all the lights are off in our homes, there’s artificial light everywhere from the street lights to our glowing device screens.

Total darkness can feel disorienting, even menacing. Our fear of inner darkness mirrors our fear of external darkness. We do all we can to run from inner darkness—grief, despair, pain, failure, guilt, vulnerability.

But what if, in the words of the Nigerian poet Ben Okri, the darkness is gentler than you think? What if the darkness is meant to take you beyond the pain to a deeper sense of wholeness? Could it be that our fear of the darkness is the real stumbling block, not the darkness itself?

The spiritual writer Barbara Brown Taylor thought so when she wrote:

“It is the inability to bear dark emotions that cause many of our most significant problems…and not the emotions themselves.”

She believes that the emotions are:

“…conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act.”

Learn to sit in the darkness. Learn to rest in the darkness. Learn to listen to the darkness.

And if you’re ever outdoors on a clear and dark night, look up at the stars. Your anxieties will disappear and you’ll gain perspective and peace.

  • Siddharth Karunakaran

    Nice article!

  • Cheryl Barron

    One night I hear my then toddler son call,”Mom!”I come running ,fear in my heart. When I see him he is standing at his bedroom window looking out.”Stars mom,stars”he said. Absolute wonder in his voice. I turned out the light and the sky popped even more.

    • Wow, that certainly did not end the way I expected. Very awesome! Thank you for sharing this…

  • Zarayna Pradyer

    Hello Cylon,
    I did chortle at your difficulties driving through almost impenetrable forest (but, by definition of your writing here, I knew you were all safe). Nevertheless, I know I scare more easily than I care to admit – when I venture away from my urban comfort blanket.
    So, thank you for your advice – learning to be aware and learning to listen to everything, particularly stuff we are not familiar with.
    Thank you.

    • Lol…yes very hard to admit my fear of the dark after convincing myself that I was all good! So happy to share the lessons I learned on that extraordinary drive…and still learning.

  • Eva Fitzgerald

    You are a conduit of truth to all who will listen and choose to hear!
    I have my own issues with darkness. The (indoor and outdoor) nighttime monsters in my childhood were real. Well into my adulthood, I was petrified to go outside alone. Going out into the darkness involved a frantic dash to the car (feet away), locking the doors, and checking the back seat! (Even on choir practice nights) So, I know your reality. Today, I feel safe in the woody nook I call home. Yet, I can’t say I’m totally unconcerned about the roaming wild animals that in daylight are adorable!
    I love what you said about the only way out of darkness is to go through it. Of course, this implication applies to both exterior and interior darkness.
    When I was enduring a marriage, I was so afraid to seek counseling because of the interior darkness. It was all my fault, and I believed him. Seeking counseling meant delving into the darkness in my soul, those monsters hiding in my closet, and exposing them to light. I feared knowing what I believed, might really be true.
    But, healing meant forcing myself through that darkness in order to see the light. I imagine my stronghold on the darkness was at least equal to the grip you had on the steering wheel that night in Bighorn.
    Like you, forcing myself through the darkness brought me into the light! I too had to look into the darkness, accept the darkness, rest in the darkness, before I could see the magnificent stars lost in my blinding fear. How many encounters with God had I missed because I failed to confront the darkness for too many years!?
    Like you shared, the darkness is gentler than you think. In fact, resting in the darkness, giving over my control, letting go of the steering wheel, has turned the darkness from foe to friend.

    • Eva, thank you for sharing this moving reflection on your own personal journey through darkness. Your courage fills me with inspiration and hope. I’m so glad this post resonated with you. It’s not the easiest thing to write about and we so often run from our own inner darkness. I loved everything you wrote, especially the last line.