Spiritual Chiaroscuro

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“You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” Arlo Guthrie


It seems like we humans are prone to believing in a fairy tale reality. We want a world without difficulties, where there is no darkness, no destruction, no death. This despite knowing that progress can only come in response to pushing to get beyond something. Whether it is creative destruction that is essential to innovation, failure that is essential to success, or effort that must be expended to overcome, we really don’t want any of it.

Isn’t it interesting that we want lives and realities that are not to be found in reality?

In contrast, one of my teachers taught me long ago that we should seek contrast. He maintained that It is in contrast that we learn and grow.

Let’s use the Italian artistic idea of chiaroscuro to illustrate. There can be no artistic expression without the interplay of darkness and light. This is true whether it is black and white photography, vivid oil or acrylic painting, patterns of textiles, or even the shapes that make up sculpture.

Isn’t that likewise true of the world and our lives in the world? There can’t be form without darkness and light, without contrast. Every up requires a down, every left demands a right, every joy cannot be without a sorrow. We can’t even have a material without a spiritual. And without opposing forces there can be no result.

We live as contrast … spiritual chiaroscuro … without all the variations we love to call good and bad we cannot exist, nor can we have lives.

Why then are we so prone to curse difficulties and darkness?

Perhaps we do not understand the virtues of all things that require effort of us. Perhaps we want to believe the whole point of life is pleasure and ease.  Maybe we are delusional.

What would it be like to be otherwise? To embrace challenge and difficulty? To lean into shadows and darkness? To seek to experience pain rather than to avoid it?

Perhaps then we would be living in awareness and reality.

Seeing True™

Peace is not an absence of darkness, but the resolution of it.

That only comes about by engaging the darkness within and without.

Seeing True™ in Action 

Let’s try an experiment.

Pick an instance of hardship or challenge in your life. Using an approach of Pros and Cons, perform a searching assessment of the results of that situation. Then push yourself to see what things might have come, both the seemingly good and seemingly bad. Consider the possibilities and potentials. Then see if you can imagine any way those results could have come without the difficulties.

See if you can find value or virtue in all the dynamics, especially those you’d just as soon avoid.

Then turn your attention to some problem in the present. Try the same Pros and Cons approach. Does it change our perception or feelings? How? Why? Most importantly, how does the inquiry change what you do or don’t do?