Every day people face wars. Wars that tear our countries, our stability, our minds, our hearts, our relationships, our identities. In many cases, these wars are hidden — kept under the folds of guilt and fear. Hidden wars leave us with acute feelings of alienation and despair. We’re left in the dark, ill-equipped and uncertain how to survive.
As someone who struggles with mental health issues, I know firsthand the anguish of a hidden battle. It feels like an endless walk down an empty path, with mist blotting out the future and shadows haunting my every step. Some days, I can glimpse a ray of light. Others, I have to cling to my memory of it.
A question that always seems to form on our lips in times of despair is this:
How do we survive in a world where a pervading darkness exists?
C.S. Lewis answers this question in an essay entitled “On Living in an Atomic Age,” written in 1948:
“The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.”
Bombs, the epitome of fear, hover over us, and clouds of unease shadow our steps. Figuratively, because we are fighting hidden wars, bombs are present. Those thoughts, feelings, and anxieties that send dread coursing through our veins. At the time when C.S. Lewis was writing this, people were fearing a literal atomic bomb. A bomb that plastered news outlets, quickened people’s steps in the streets, and chilled children in their sleep.
Lewis understood the terror, yet he reminds his readers that there are better ways to spend their lives than living in a prison of fear. Fear, as he sees it, seeks to dominate minds by locking out sources of light and hope. By forcing the individual to fixate on the darkness and stumble through their mundane tasks like ghosts in a dream. In order to live in a world with looming shadows, we must do sensible and human things. I like to think of this idea as “surviving by beauty.”
Over this past month, I have exercised this practice in my own life, and I was filled with awe at how much comfort it has brought. I may not feel “okay,” but, by surrounding myself with goodness, I can defy the darkness in a small but sure way. Even something as simple as braided hair girds me with renewed courage and reminds me of daring heroines like Eowyn.
Another act I performed was cheering up and re-decorating my desk area. “Put in the effort to make the place you spend most of your time in lovely,” I thought. And I did.
Here are some photos:
Now, for some art & beauty that has anchored my soul.
1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.” ~J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King
I’m currently reading The Fellowship of the Ring (first book of The Lord of the Rings), and, oh, has it been good for my soul. Although I gleaned this quote from the final book Return of the King, I think it’s a beautiful reminder for the times when despair invades our hearts.
Against the backdrop of shadows and desolation, throughout the trilogy, Frodo and his comrades cling to hope through song, food, merriment, friendship, and soul-pricking beauty. One of the greatest paradoxes in The Lord of the Rings is how acutely I feel the presence of darkness surrounding Middle Earth, and yet, in the company of the travelers, I am wrapped in a blanket of warmth and courage. Even in the bleak moments, the characters exhibit bravery as they face darkness. For those who are struggling to grapple with goodness in the face of grief, I highly recommend reading this trilogy. It’s a beautiful reminder that yes, there is darkness, but “in the end the Shadow [is] only a small and passing thing.”
It is the appearance of beauty — a star — that lights hope in Sam’s heart. As a stargazer, I’ve smiled at the sheer number of times Tolkien mentions stars as a source of comfort. Dwelling on the good and the lovely, even in the midst of deep brokenness, restores our souls and our strength.
2. “Timshel,” Mumford & Sons
"And death is at your doorstep And it will steal your innocence But it will not steal your substance But you are not alone in this And you are not alone in this"
“Timshel,” a song by Mumford & Sons, an English folk rock band, explores the depths of grief with the offer of a steady hand. In the song, “death,” or a shadow/bomb, looms over an individual. And though it will blot out his ideals and his “innocence” of evil, if he nourishes his “substance” (or what gives him courage), it will not drain the life out of him. Yet, while he accepts support and comfort from his friends, they “cannot move the mountains for [him].” Though he “[is] not alone,” it is still his choice to counter darkness and his choice to cling to beauty.
Fear seeks to isolate. Compassion and friendship unite. Though our friends can not fight our battles for us, nor can they understand the extent of our pain, we can accept the consolation they offer. Nurture your “substance,” so that when “death” knocks, you will not tremble beneath his glare.
3. Josh Garrels’ “The Light Came Down” Album Cover
I could spend ages admiring the intricacy of this picture, the cover art for Josh Garrels’s album The Light Came Down. With its images of banners, castles, and people marching on, it seems to radiate with hope. Here are people doing sensible and human things. If you are able to spot them, my favorite piece of this artwork is the three little children walking in a line. Armed with candles, cake, flags, and flowers, they tread through the inky blackness with joyful defiance in their eyes. Grasping their packages of light, they know that night is but “a small and passing thing.” And “high beauty,” beauty greater than what they carry in their hands and hearts, lies “for ever beyond” the reach of shadows.
Darkness calls for a response. Let your response be one not of fear and despair but of firm dissent. Don’t “huddle together like frightened sheep.” Braid your hair, light a candle, read a poem, play music, admire art, establish routines that restore your sanity.
Simple rituals, simple acts. Live by beauty in the light, so you can survive by it in the darkness.
What are some sensible and human things you implement in your life? Have you read The Lord of the Rings? What are your thoughts on it? What is your favorite part of Josh Garrels’ album cover?
Let me know in the comments. 🙂 I’d love to hear from you.