On Illumination

“In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus

‘“Et lux in tenebris lucet” — and the light shineth in the darkness,’ Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, his book about finding meaning and purpose in the darkest of times.

There are many metaphors, legends, and stories about light in dark times, ranging from religious texts to stories of people overcoming unthinkable suffering. In times of darkness, there is always a light, somewhere, however faint. And the key is knowing how to see it.

For Hannah Arendt, this light was found in other people. In Men in Dark Times, a book whose title was inspired by a poem by Bertold Brecht, she wrote: “Even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and ... such illumination may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time-span that was given to them on earth.”

She believed that those who know and experience suffering, the persecuted and enslaved people, are more likely to become those luminaries because experiencing or witnessing suffering will lead to moral action. These illuminations are a form of humanity, created in the connection between people. They require an openness to the world, to others, and more than being created in suffering, they open the possibility of light, of joy. 

”This kind of humanity actually becomes inevitable when the times become so extremely dark for certain groups of people that it is no longer up to them, their insight or choice, to withdraw from the world," Arendt wrote. "This kind of humanity is the great privilege of pariah peoples; it is the advantage that the pariahs of this world always and in all circumstances can have over others."

She believed that the public realm lost the power of illumination which was originally part of its nature. For her, too many people closed off from the world, from others, and retreated into themselves, which means a loss of humanity. And obviously, the system or the establishment, she believed, will always try to shut down those who try to illuminate the darkness.

So who are these luminaries, these pariah peoples today?

They are rarely the loud or visible ones. They are the ones working against all odds, with steadfastness and compassion, those speaking truth amid the vastness of lies, the refugees standing for justice wherever they live, the defunded artists and activists who keep doing their work, the humanitarian workers risking their lives every day, the journalists, ambulance drivers, the poets of Gaza. Those working for peace everywhere while the majority vote for the bombs.

But how do they do it? And where do they find light?

Albert Einstein said "[t]he ideas that have lighted my way have been kindness, beauty, and truth." Those illuminations come from observation, and we do not have to aspire to become luminaries ourselves. But we ought to develop the skills to see the light because it's available to all of us.

For some, in particular children, this might come naturally. It is a way of being and moving through the world: embodied, grounded, aware, open, curious. It's a way of paying attention, not judging, of searching, of being playful. And like rest, it is fuel. The problem is simply that many of us, in our endless busyness or flight from reality, have lost this skill. We need to re-learn the art of wonder.

Many poets, writers, scientists are, first and foremost, wanderers and contemplators. They find moments of illuminations through the simple act of walking outside. They notice the world around them, whether in discarded objects, the kindness of strangers, the sun piercing through dark clouds, the eventual song of birds in Spring. These little miracles are everywhere as long as we are willing to see them. Sometimes all you need is to notice that tiny flower growing through concrete to know we just need to keep going.

Like when Mary Oliver is among the trees:

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”


Men in Dark Times, Hannah Arendt

'We, Refugees,' Hannah Arendt

‘Miracles in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt and Refugees as ‘Vanguard’, Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 34, Issue 1, March 2021, Pages 67–84, 13 July 2019. Read here.

"Men in Dark Times" by Hannah Arendt, Madeleine Thien, Goethe Institut Canada. Read here.

‘Between the World and Us: Hannah Arendt on Outsiderdom, the Power and Privilege of Being a Pariah, and How We Humanize Each Other,’ Maria Popova, The Marginalian. Read here.

'Les Illuminations,' Arthur Rimbaud. Read the translation here.

‘When I am Among the Trees,’ Mary Oliver.

‘The Almond Trees,’ Albert Camus, 1040.

‘Ways of Seeing Light in Dark Times with Graphic Ethnography: A Reflection,’ Alisse Waterston, Society for Cultural Anthropology, July 28, 2022. Read here.

Further Resources

Illuminations, Walter Benjamin

'To Posterity,' Bertolt Brecht

Hope in the Dark
, Rebecca Solnit

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Beauty as Intervention

“Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.” — Toni Morrison