When darkness falls

There are moments when darkness falls upon you, when you walk figuratively through the desolate land of shadows. Cancer, betrayal, poverty, death of a loved one — such events shatter lives in our tranquil part of the world, where people generally do not have to face the community-wrecking miseries of war, plague, floods or famine. The grim shadow is therefore often an individual experience: walking one step at a time through your personal Mordor while people around do not share the suffering, maybe they don’t even see it.

Former US Navy officer James Stockdale described his coping strategy during his period as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam 1965-73.

I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade. […] This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

This philosophy of duality has become known as the Stockdale Paradox.

Karin Boye (1900-41), an extraordinary Swedish poet, put her thoughts on this type of issue into words in the concluding eight lines of a poem called Jul 1939 (Christmas 1939).* This is a good English rendition:

The empty winter skies
have smothered every cry.
But the souls listen endlessly,
the dead and we.
In some corner hidden away
by a world to destruction worn,
there is a child being born,
a promised child on straw and hay.

*I guess Ms Boye wrote the poem in early 1940 and it evokes the mood of that winter when foul darkness descended upon Europe. My father was 12 at that time and I wonder what he felt deep inside during those Christmas days, a boy old enough to understand what was about to happen to the world. Nowadays, when he is old, he does not want to talk much about such matters. And memories of things 70+ years in the past are flimsy.

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