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The Luminous Dark

Joseph Campbell states in A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living that:

Nietzsche was the one who did the job for me. At a certain moment in his life, the idea came to him of what he called ‘the love of your fate.’ Whatever your fate is, whatever the hell happens, you say, “This is what I need.” It may look like a wreck, but go at it as though it were an opportunity, a challenge. If you bring love to that moment – not discouragement – you will find the strength is there. Any disaster you can survive is an improvement in your character, your stature, and your life. What a privilege! This is when the spontaneity of your own nature will have a chance to flow. Then, when looking back at your life, you will see that the moments which seemed to be great failures followed by wreckage were the incidents that shaped the life you have now. You’ll see that this is really true. Nothing can happen to you that is not positive. Even though it looks and feels at the moment like a negative crisis, it is not. The crisis throws you back, and when you are required to exhibit strength, it comes. The dark night of the soul comes just before revelation. When everything is lost, and all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed. (35)

“The love of your fate.” Before we explore this phrase of Campbell’s, it’d be helpful to clarify his use of the word “fate.” Often we align the word “fate” with the idea of brute fatalism. Fatalism as an idea is sometimes expressed in common thought idiom as “whatever will be, will be, and there’s nothing much that we can do about it.” We might resent this circumscribing situation, or at best—with Stoic resolve—just accept our fate.

In this Stoic vein we have the opportunity to be reconciled with the horrid stuff of life. We may even accept that it’s all grist for the mill, as it were… and all potentially beneficial for the growth of the psyche. In this sense, we may assume that the “bad” stuff of life is a necessary precondition for the eventual arrival of the “good” stuff.

But even this notion of fate is too dire. It’s not necessarily true that “whatever happens is needed.” The tragic suffering in Ukraine is surely not what its citizens require for their civic and soulful flourishing. The gradual swamping of Pacific islands due to creeping climate change is probably not the best way for these populations to prosper. These instances suggest that the word “destiny” is perhaps better than the word “fate.” According to some definitions, destiny is not fatalism. Rather, it bears a malleable template. It allows for some exercise of freedom.

Fate derives its authority through our familiarity with the iron-clad necessities within the natural forces that operate around us. Destiny, however, allows us to extricate ourselves somewhat from such stern compulsions. As such, not everything is utterly predetermined and inevitable, especially in the inner realms of the psyche. 


Because the human psyche is a bearer of both inexorable forces of nature and the human capacity for freedom and creativity, “any disaster you can survive is an improvement.” Contingent, of course, upon our interior response to the disaster. The how of the response can be a matter of choice. We have some agency here, even though sometimes the disaster indwells us so deeply that we undergo what has often been called "a dark night of the soul." With this, the soul often finds itself inhabiting a gloomy soul space. This dark night may take the form of a harsh depression, which hangs heavily for weeks, months, or even years before it disperses.

 When we haunt this dolor we can find ourselves living a double life—a coping life—where we perform and present for external eyes while our interior life seems to live in a zone of quiet despair, as if we’re enfolded within those shadow people who dwell in the mythical Cimmerian world. They live in perpetual mist and darkness and just a thin distance from the realm of the dead. In this land there is little or no light: no light from the sun, no light from the moon. Even the otherwise faithful stars are clouded. 

We might blame ourselves for our entrapment. Perhaps our eyes are not trying hard enough to see beyond the mists? Self-doubt, self-criticism, and self-hatred may also ensue. But how to escape? Possibly we’re being held prisoner in this gloomy place by our own out-worn beliefs, entrenched patterns of behavior, and conditioned reflexes—all of which require shedding. But such shedding will be painful because we’re so tethered to these “old” scaffoldings. They give us security and refuge from the untested and beckoning “new.” Indeed, they have become part of our custodian identity, yet we’re invited to accept this soul darkness, even merge with it, and then be open to its guidance.

It’s sometimes said that the night’s darkness is densest just before dawn. However, given enough patience and courage, a light emerges, although faintly at first. And with this light there is the dawning of insight—perhaps even of soul-disclosing flashes of revelation. There is an awakening and a renewed engagement with a more authentic self and with the wider world. 

Using another metaphor for this process, we could say that a seed has awakened and arisen out of the endarkening, yet nurturing, earth. The awakening of every seed, then its stem, leaf, and eventual flower, takes its own form and duration. Its process can be fostered, but never hurried.

When we’re overwhelmed by the emergence of old, unwieldy, and unresolved forces in our psyche, our truest nature and purest light has been eclipsed. Yet despite the trauma, the experience also presents an opportunity and a gift. We have to see into our self-created shadow realms and learn from the luminous dark, which shines penetratingly into our psyche’s deep interior. In a sense, Individuation (or Initiation) is about learning to see in—and into—the dark and to recognize our shadow self more clearly. Then we may follow a resolve for the shadow’s gradual transformation. 

We can’t cast the shadow self out. We’re married to it. There’ll be no divorce. It’s an integral part of us. But we can shed light on it. Love it, even. The shadow can greatly assist us along our journey of self-discovery (though admittedly it can be a rough journey!). But the travel is empowered because light and shadow dwell together, and as such, give perspective along the way.

One final thought: While our own individual effort is fundamentally required for the journey, we’re to remind ourselves that we’re not distinct, unrelated persons. We live in social, and sometimes also inter-subjective, networks with other people. And we can reach out for support from fellow travelers, which is why these MythBlasts are so helpful for the Joseph Campbell Foundation community.


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