Let There Be Light

I was sitting in a chair out on the grass, in spite of the incredible heat, drinking a beer, looking at the sunflowers off in the community garden, and reading an old Hungarian novel. Between sips of life-bestowing beer, I came to a part where a character in the book was not satisfied with his appearance when he looked in the mirror. As the description put it, “his face darkened”.

We commonly use some reference to darkness to imply badness, such as Darth Vader going over to the dark side. Why do we use phrases referring to darkness to mean bad things? Some might say that it is because we are afraid of the dark, but I think that it has nothing to do with any inherent quality of darkness. I suspect that the real psychological basis for this linguistic practice has to do with light.

Light has remarkable symbolic power as a representation of goodness. Darkness, as an absence of light, is taken almost logically to symbolize qualities that are the opposite of what light means to us. I assume this is inherent in basic human perception of the world, so that metaphors of light must be present in every language.

What do we consider good? God (Jesus is the light of the world), knowledge (the Enlightenment), purity (more symbolic here—white wedding dresses), happiness (an expression that is “glowing”). When Quakers speak of praying for someone, they always use the phrase “to hold them in the light”.

Down in our subconscious, we are so attuned to the power of light as a symbol of goodness that even things that merely imply light will also mean goodness. Thus in the physical world, even reflected light is desirable, so that we polish our floors and shoes and place chandeliers hung with crystal in fancy rooms. Making metaphors from these instances of reflected light, if we say that someone has a “polished manner”, it is, of course, a compliment.

Why is it that human beings have so much in common with plants? That question I can shed no light on.

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