The first time I felt the darkness I was in the eighth grade: My girlfriend had just broken up with me. It was a full moon and there were no city lights for miles, so it was clear and bright in the mountains of Bailey, Colorado—the entire area lit with a luminous white light. The shadows—stark and defined—cast menacing shapes against the cool, dry earth. The pale stars were white on black, like an observatory, the universe a thick black ink beyond it. I sat alone on the back deck of my house, swaying in one of those outdoor patio swings, contemplating the meaning of life.
I looked up into the sky and saw fast moving clouds just above the ridge of ponderosa pine trees across the field from my house. Dark, ominous clouds. They soon covered the moon and plunged the entire area into darkness and deep shadow. This girlfriend didn’t mean that much to me. In fact, she basically admitted to cheating on me by having a contest with some other guy where they licked each other’s eyeballs. Still, first break ups are always hard. Swinging there, I thought about those clouds felt like a symbol of life in general.
The darkness overtaking the light.
* * *
Eighth grade. That was the same year my eighth-grade teacher wheeled a T.V. into the classroom early on the morning of September 11th telling us a plane had been hijacked. I honestly couldn’t understand why our no-nonsense teacher would bring a T.V. all the way into social studies classroom first thing in the morning to show us a bit of news. She clicked on the T.V. though and everyone went quiet. The fear and horror on the faces of all the adults scared us kids more than the images on the screen.
I don’t think many of us understood exactly what was happening. We were in a small-mountain town of Colorado, thousands of miles away from New York City, a city most of us had never been to or even conceived of outside of movies. That morning meant nothing to me, not really, not in a way that I could truly comprehend, and yet it was, in many ways, the defining moment of our generation as we came of age, setting into motion the next two decades of foreign policy, Middle East invasions, and the war against terrorism. I can’t remember a world in which these words have not existed. We all learned that day what others around the world had grown up knowing—that the world was a dangerous place and no one was safe or immune from its violence or dangers. Darkness overtook the light that day. And from that darkness more darkness spread. Sometimes spread by our own country in its messy pursuit of justice.
* * *
I was fifteen or sixteen at Camp ID-RA-HA-JE—an Evangelical Christian summer camp just over the ridge of pine trees from my house, when the darkness returned. Camp ID-RA-HA-JE was undoubtedly a mouthful for a camp name but that’s because it was an acronym, the first two letters of each word making up the name: I’D RAther HAve JEsus. ID-RA-HA-JE. It was not, as some people thought, some cool Native American word like Camp Fly with Eagles.
One night I asked the weekly pastor if I could talk with him after the evening’s sermon. I’d been feeling weird, in the head I mean, and figured I should talk to someone.
I’d talked to my dad about the feeling once before, but he always said the same thing, “Just make sure to eat right, sleep good, and get plenty of exercise.” While the phrase perturbed me for its simplicity at the time, looking back on it now, I realize my father was not far off from how one should combat depression. He was the director of a residential treatment facility for young men and a licensed professional counselor specializing in mental health and addiction, but he was also, of course, my boring dad.
I asked the pastor if we could talk alone and we moved over to the secluded section of the dining hall. The carpet was all pixelated grey and the walls wood paneled in some shitty-faux pine.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Well …” I began, “Everything in my life just seems kind of unexciting and grey and I don’t know … colorless.”
“Do you have any sin in your life?” he asked me.
I thought about it.
“I mean, I guess we all have sin in our life,” I said.
“Yes, that’s true, but sin sometimes has the power to block out any love from God we might normally receive.”
“I would start there, really examine your heart,” he said.
I walked outside and down the rickety deck stairs to my bunk.
I knew it. It was all the masturbating and the time I got drunk last year, for the second time. Possibly the two times I smoked pot. I would have to clean up my act. Perhaps then God would restore the color to my world. I was sixteen, considered a “rebel” in my church, but a naïve Christian good boy by nearly everyone at school.
I didn’t think I was headed straight to hell necessarily, but I was frustrated at how often my “flesh” rebelled against my spirit. I wanted to belong to God, yet my sin kept getting in the way.
Funny how such a small encounter, dwarfed by other messages of love and forgiveness about God, came to consume me with guilt and a constant need to do and be better. How it still consumes me. This need to do better. This feeling that I will never be good enough. Will never be able to get my act together. Darkness overtaking the light inside of me. Eight grade and the following years marked my loss of innocence I guess you could say.
This body of sin I’d tried to mold into the body of a saint … and failed.
What do you do with the darkness of terrorism? The darkness of nations and presidents and people whipped up by fear and the fog of war? What do you do with the darkness inside of you? The darkness that possesses you, that you belong to, whether you want it to or not. None of us think that we’re the villain of our story, but the hero. (I for one, am often going around life confused why others don’t see that I, of course, am the center of the universe). And yet we all have the capacity for tremendous good or evil. Sometimes our arms bend back.