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In Praise of Darkness

On the eve of Daylight Saving Time, we wonder: When did everybody get so scared of the dark?
 
 
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Nothing affects my mood like sunshine. My years are divided into lightish and darkish, happyish and glummish. The long s-wave undulating across the calendar doesn't follow the schedule of Persephone's well-run express, slipping into the dusky realm on Sept. 23 and reemerging six months later on the vernal equinox. It follows U.S. Daylight Saving Time.

I am part of a disparate tribe, scattered throughout the general populace, who anticipate this rite of spring like anxious kids waiting for Christmas. Everyone is generally pleased about it, but our delight is intense and exultant, thrumming with the thrill of deliverance. Soon we'll walk in the sun again.

"Saving daylight" for the evening hours of summer started in 1918 as a wartime effort to lower domestic electricity use. People hated it (they went to bed earlier back then), and the next year Congress repealed the act. After that Daylight Saving Time was deployed in fits and starts until it was standardized in 1966. Henceforth the nation, except Indiana and a few other maverick states, would spring forward on the last Sunday in April and fall back on the last Sunday in October.

Since then Daylight Saving Time has been tweaked at will by Congress any time that august body wishes to deprive OPEC of the sale of a few hundred thousand barrels of oil. In 1974, in response to the energy crisis, DST started on Jan. 6. In 1987 its advent was permanently moved back to the first Sunday in April.

Next year the happy time will be extended once again. The 2005 energy bill decreed that starting in 2007, Daylight Saving Time will begin the second Sunday in March and end the first Sunday in November. That's 34 weeks of fun in the sun, up from 30 this year. If it had been up to the House it would have been 38 weeks.

"It just makes everyone feel sunnier," said savings-pusher Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachussetts, pressing his case.

You would think this would make me, a victim of Seasonal Affective Disorder if ever there was one, overjoyed. It doesn't. It leaves me ambivalent. Because I've come to believe the problem is not that there's too much darkness in life. It's that we don't revere the darkness we have. And like anything scorned, that makes it mean.

Leaving the lights up

We welcome the season of darkness apprehensively, armed with Christmas lights. Americans bought $823 million worth of them from China last year. Little twinkly lights to banish the darkness, to ease us into winter's darkest depths. On my street, people are leaving the lights up well into January. And I'm right there with them. My new habit of observing Epiphany (Jan. 6, the 12th day of Christmas, the day the wise men arrived in Bethlehem) is mostly an excuse to leave Christmas lights on a little longer.

I get by fine in January, even most of February. The new year has begun, and I'm abuzz with plans for self-improvement. But toward the end of February and into March -- duplicitous, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't March -- I get cranky. By now it's been months since I exercised regularly, and I'm tired of the rain. And this from someone who lives in California. My boyfriend assures me that this time of year in Montana, where he lived for many years, relationships are bursting into flame, lives are ending in suicide and average upstanding citizens are in a muddy slide toward alcoholism.

Maybe that's not the healthiest way to cope with the dark, but I kind of admire it anyway. These people are not struggling to appear chipper, fit and well-groomed, as most of us will feel compelled to once the late sunsets permit evening powerwalks. They are gloomy, slovenly and down in the dumps, squaring off against private demons at pitiful odds. Their good spirits are hibernating with eye masks and ear plugs. The seeds of their joy are fast asleep underground, waiting to go nuts when spring has finally sprung.

Dark nights of the soul

When did everybody get so scared of the dark? When did people decide they needed sunny and 70 and happy and safe all the time? One of the congressmen pushing the Daylight Saving expansion noted that kids everywhere will rejoice come Halloween 2007 because they'll be able to stay out trick-or-treating in their neighborhoods, thanks to Daylight Saving Time. Because now, of course, kids trick or treat in the afternoon at the mall. Where's the thrill in that? How are you going to have a chance encounter with a goblin in front of Hot Dog On A Stick? How do you get to practice facing danger, even the simulated variety provided by dragging your pillowcase of candy across the neighborhoods' darkened lawns, if your whole world is a clean, well-lighted place?

Apparently ordinary, garden-variety darkness is now unbearably creepy. And forget about dark nights of the soul. Those are not to be borne in any form.

Last year I inteviewed Rob Brezsny, the Freewill astrologer. As we trudged along a chalk-dust trail winding up a hot hillside near his house in Marin County, he talked about darkness.

There are two kinds, he said. "One is darkness that is most in play right now -- outright pathology, sickness, misery, cruelty, evil. And the other kind of darkness is mystery, the unknown, difficult challenge. That aspect of our own nature which is unripe and is on the way to growing into something more interesting but at this point is still ineffective and clumsy."

The trick, Brezsny mused, is to form an alliance with the Glenda-the-Good-Witch darkness, engage it so it crowds out the evil twin. "My opinion is to the extent that we ignore our own shadows and unripe qualities we conjure that other kind of darkness," he said.

I think I get what he's talking about. Not long ago my therapist suggested I read through some old journals to identify some patterns. I cringed, knowing it would be exquisitely embarrassing. It was. But it was worthwhile, if for only one reason: I found that each time I had approached the scary truths about the confining relationship of my 20s and my life's suspended trajectory, I had invariably veered away. It was terrifying to peer into those impenetrable depths and see what was probably obvious to my friends and family. Worse, in subsequent entries I would disavow the glimpses of truth. I labelled them mistakes, failures of bonhomie, or my favorite, PMS-induced temporary insanity. Not surprisingly, the whole thing finally blew up in my face, and I got the "opportunity" to face some of those difficult truths.

Moral of the story: Ignore your personal darkness, and it will sneak up later and bite you in the ass. Venture into it, and you might save yourself some misery.

Unnatural cheerfulness

Last fall New York University professor Christina Kotchemidova published an article titled "From Good Cheer to 'Drive-by Smiling': A Social History of Cheerfulness." In it she argued that cheerfulness is no more endemic to human character than bowling -- that in fact our cultural dictum to be perky is a uniquely American phenomenon rooted in the 18th century rise of the middle class, an outgrowth of the young capitalist republic's emphasis on pluck and self-sufficiency.

There are plenty of good things to come of the sunny national disposition, Kotchemidova writes. In the workplace cheerfulness benefits the individual and the group by keeping everyone upbeat and productive, while in the marketplace it stimulates consumerism. It's also nice to be nice and meet other nice people. So cheerfulness is uniquely useful socially and economically. But what are the costs?

One may be a skewed view of normalcy that has a lot of Americans believing they're depressed or otherwise defective. I remember how stung I was when I applied for a job at a Phoenix chiropractor's office only to be told I had in effect flunked the personality test by coming up too melancholic-phlegmatic. The New Age medievalist-huckster-bonecracker himself told me the receptionist really needed to be a sanguine sort. I hope he spends eternity soaking in a pool of black bile and phlegm. Just kidding.

Another cost could actually be higher rates of depression; people may be worn out by "emotion labor," the work of trying to stifle noncompliant, unacceptable emotions like anger or melancoholy or just general pissiness. Kotchemidova notes that Delta Airlines, which institutionalized cheerfulness training for flight attendants in the 1970s, spent $9 million on antidepressants for employees and dependents in 2003.

Eternal hyperactivity

For all you deductive thinkers out there rolling your eyeballs, I'm not suggesting a causal relationship between Daylight Saving Time and pervasive shallowness leading to depression. But there is a metaphysical correlation. The culture rejects repose. People are supposed to be upbeat all the time. They're supposed to be ever active, happy, hungry for more activity and experience. All that is an exhilarating part of human life, and summertime feeds it naturally, but it's like that's not good enough anymore. Even 30 weeks isn't enough anymore. We've got to be living in some kind of hyperactive state for 65 percent of the year.

A cantankerous writer featured on webexhibits.org weighed in on the subject in 1947: "As an admirer of moonlight, I resent the bossy insistence of those who want to reduce my time for enjoying it. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier and get them up earlier to make them healthy, wealthy and wise in spite of themselves."

The truth is there are a lot of good reasons for Daylight Saving Time. It does save some oil, about 1 percent a day. It cuts down on car accidents. There's also a public health argument to be made, since overweight America could use more after-dinner walks with the kids.

But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. We should get to know the darkness, the better to understand the light.

Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Monterey, Calif.