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On Living into the Dark
Reflections on life (and a newsletter) without a plan
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
[NOTE: When I wrote this post to launch this newsletter, I had given the project the title “Living into the Dark.” In April 2023 I changed the title to “The Living Dark.” However, the principles laid out in this post still fully apply.]
Recently, as I was leading the fall convocation at my college and delivering something resembling a keynote, I told my assembled colleagues about something I had written in the self-evaluation portion of my last annual performance review. The theme of my talk was the importance of “finding your why” (in the vein of Simon Sinek, author of Start with Why and Find Your Why), and in the process of personalizing it, I found my mostly extemporaneous words turning toward the topic of long-term future goals and how I have always been constitutionally unable to establish them. That was what brought my performance review to mind, as the HR-provided form for writing this annual document contains a question that asks employees to reflect on where they want to be, career-wise, five years from now. It also asks how we plan to get there. My response to this question provided not only good fodder for that recent convocation talk but a good point of departure for further explaining this newsletter’s outlook, not to mention its entire content plan.
Here’s what I wrote about my five-year goals in that self-review:
This is always a question that makes me sound like a distinctly unmotivated person when I try to answer it, because I have no five-year goals. All the best things that have happened in my life, career-wise and otherwise, have been the result of serendipity as I have made a point of living in the present and following the path that presents itself right now. Life knows what it wants from me. Five years from now, I’ll find out what I’m supposed to be doing five years from now. If I have any plan for reaching that, it’s simply to concentrate wholly on this moment, the here and now, and fulfill what it asks of me, in the confidence that this will lead organically and inevitably to what is supposed to be in the future.
I trust you see the connection. The paragraph above could serve as a kind of mini-manifesto on what it means to “live into the dark.” Following on from last week’s explanation of the inspiration for this newsletter’s title in Dean Wesley Smith’s Writing into the Dark, I want to delve more deeply into the specific meaning of the theme at hand and what it involves, entails, and invokes.
Living into the dark means living with no plan, no rigid goals, no outline. It means forgoing the impossible attempt to plot a path to a preconceived end. It means accepting, even embracing, the fact that the future is unknowable, that all your thoughts about it are pure projection and abstraction. Beyond even this, it means accepting that you will never actually live your way into the future, since the future only ever arrives as a kind of cloud formation in the eternal and evanescent present: always new, always unexpected, always categorically eluding and transcending your mental images of it.
This understanding and experience of life has unfolded and intensified for me over the span of my five decades. The wisdom that has seemed to want to force itself upon me is that human life is a process of, first, having rigid expectations and assumptions built up about literally everything — about what people, families, and communities are like; about the solidity and givenness of familial, institutional, societal, and civilizational arrangements; about what you should expect and hope for, what brings pleasure and fulfillment, how you should view the purpose, trajectory, and meaning of your life; about your very own self, who and what you really are, and the relationship between this self and the world — and then seeing these ruthlessly deconstructed and demolished.
Living into the dark means living with no plan, no rigid goals, no outline, forgoing the impossible attempt to plot a path toward a preconceived end.
Life, it seems to me, is in essence a massive head fake. From the moment you’re born, it says, “Here’s what I am, and here’s what you are.” And you, being young and naive, run with it. And then at some point life suddenly, shockingly crows “Gotcha!” and makes an impossible slam dunk at the opposite end of a playing court you didn’t know you were on, after which the walls and floor crumble and you find yourself hurtling endlessly, weightlessly through the empty space of an infinite jeweled cosmos like the doomed astronauts spilling out of the shredded spaceship in Ray Bradbury’s “Kaleidoscope.”
Living into the dark means living with full, acute awareness that this is all the case. It means letting this awareness suffuse and transmute your sense of everything.
In the case of a newsletter titled after such a theme, it means writing without a definite plan, letting the thing have its head and run where it will. Just like I’m doing right now. If you’re still with me, then I assume this approach speaks to you on some level.
…into the Dark
I want to say something, too, about the term “dark.” In the context of this newsletter, and of my writing career over the past 24 years or so, “dark” carries a welter of interlinked connotations that are in full effect here.
The dark in this project’s title means dark as in unseeable and unknowable, not available to perception, cognition, or direct awareness — much like the darkness of the unconscious mind, ever unknowable to the conscious ego except as a shadowy presence that always accompanies, precedes, and stands behind, looking over the ego’s shoulder, as it were.
It means dark as in the darkness that, in the perennially evocative imagery of Genesis 1, “covered the face of the deep” in the primordial state of uncreated chaos before God spoke and shaped it into an ordered cosmos.
It means dark like the numinous shadows and gloom of Gothic and supernatural horror, which conceal, embody, and emanate all the heady, paradoxical potency of Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the awesome divine mystery before which we tremble with helpless fascination and dread.
It means dark as in Abram’s transformative encounter with Yahweh in Genesis 15: “As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. Then God spoke to him.” (I have actually always been partial to the rendering of this verse in the Douay-Reihms 1899 American edition, where the divine visitation is described as “a great and darksome horror.”)
It means dark as in the fertile yin soil of the creative unconscious, which can manifest as the muse, the daemon, and the genius, not only in pretty words with overtones of mythic symbolism, but in actual firsthand experience.
It means dark like the “cloud of unknowing” that, in the words of the anonymous author of the classic fourteenth-century Christian contemplative treatise bearing that title, must always “remain between you and God” in this life, “preventing you from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection.” The author advises us to reconcile ourselves to waiting in this cloud, this ignorance, while continuing to long for God. “For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.”
It means dark as in the apocalyptically unsettled tenor of the present collective cultural moment, when God, the universe, fate, the zeitgeist, name your higher power, seems hellbent on demonstrating to all of us the aforementioned emergent meta-principle of crumbling cosmos and reversed expectations.
These are some of the connotations of the word in question within the context of this newsletter and my other writings. Having caught the drift, you can surely articulate more of them yourself if you’re so led.
There Is No Grand Scheme
In all these ways and many others, my whole life has been an experience of living into the dark. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, “There is no grand scheme of things.” Or rather, it’s a grand scheme that I, that we, can only read in reverse, never ahead or directly, as it is part and parcel of that numinous darkness. In fact it is the darkness, as I was forcibly shown one night in my mid-twenties when it appeared at the foot of my bed as a man-shaped shadow that paralyzed me with its presence. I have written1 about this before,2 and I will inevitably say more about it in future installments of this newsletter, including the fact that it was only later that I recognized my unpleasant preternatural encounter as a missed opportunity — missed because I shrank from it in horror — for liberation and enlightenment.
These things and more will serve as the substance of Living into the Dark. I have no plan here, other than to remain true to my sense of guidance by personal interest, natural affinity, and inner gravitational attraction.
Human life is a process of having rigid expectations and assumptions built up about literally everything and then seeing these ruthlessly demolished.
I should add that the darkness as such will not always or even usually be foregrounded here. Many other interests, some of them positively light-hearted, will assert themselves. Oddly, I may offer advice about productivity from time to time, as this has been an area where I have unexpectedly done a lot of personal experimentation and gained a lot of shareable knowledge. But the darkness into which, as it was for Seamus Heaney, everything I know is a doorway, into which I am and always have been writing and living, will stand behind the scenes, in and as the shadows, leading ever onward toward that final reunion and fulfillment whose inevitability has entranced me with longing and terror since before I had those words to describe it.
I might also note that this same luminous, numinous darkness is now and always has been your own constant companion. Eventually, in some unique form suited to each of us, we all encounter it. We are all forced to acknowledge it, though we tend to tamp it down, cover it up, and deny or ignore its truth. The name we usually give to this act of repression and denial is “living my life.”
My point is that we are all, in our separate ways, consciously or unconsciously, living into the dark. If you find my style of talking about it, even when I’m not talking about it, even when I’m ostensibly talking about something else, to be resonant, evocative, interesting, or otherwise congenial, then I hope you’ll click the “subscribe” button below and join me to find out where this is all going.
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See “Shadow Visitors: Sleep Paralysis and Discarnate Dark Ones” at The Teeming Brain.
See “Initiation by Nightmare: Cosmic Horror and Chapel Perilous” at The Teeming Brain.