Indeed, while apocalypse refers to an unveiling, it may be that some forms of unveiling entail shuttering—closing institutions, turning off the lights, going dark. In such darkness, we are forced to stop, take stock, and then learn to go ahead without sight. As Berry writes in an essay, “It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.” I am still in the dark. I have no answers about what the future might hold for institutions of higher education. I have no answers about where my family and I will be living in a year and what work I might be doing. And yet by going dark, I am coming to know the dark and to know that it too blooms and sings. And I am learning to hope with Berry that the darkness might make not only fear, but also grace, more palpable.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
—Wendell Berry, “To Know the Dark”
It was a normal July evening in the summer of COVID. I was sitting on the back porch reading while our five-year-old daughter read to herself in the hammock. My good friend and the chair of my English department texted to ask if he could stop by, and a few minutes later he pulled up in our driveway and sat down. I wondered if he’d received word from our administration about the fate of our colleague, the only member of our department who didn’t yet have tenure. Jack told me that yes, our colleague would be cut in January, and that on top of this, my own position would end in May. Then he began crying. I sat there in disbelief. My daughter came over and began asking “Mr. Jack” what he had been doing. She prattled on about her day—overjoyed to have someone other than her family to talk to after months when such opportunities were scarce. The squirrels continued to scold each other in the trees. Jack responded kindly to my daughter. And I just sat there, not knowing what to say.
As the news sunk in, a knot of fear and anger and anxiety settled in my chest. I knew that millions of people had lost their jobs in the last months, most, like me, through no fault of their own. I knew I had time to look for gainful employment, unlike many who got two weeks’ notice. I knew my chance of landing on my feet somewhere was fairly good. But none of that knowledge helped much. And the sense that higher education itself was imploding intensified my sense of vertigo.
I have been disabused of any pretensions to clarity about the future. COVID’s apocalyptic gesture—its unveiling of complacence and injustice and decadence—has had this effect on many of us. But institutions of higher education have been famously stable (or infamously stuck in their ways), and as a professor with several books and the respect of my colleagues and students, I thought I was largely immune from the pandemic’s immediate effects. I knew the next five to ten years would be difficult ones for my university, but I thought I knew roughly what the future held for me career-wise. I thought my next steps were fairly well illuminated. I had built my house upon academia’s rock: I had tenure.
In the days that followed, I began to grow acclimated to the dark. The knot of tension dissipated. I slept well again. And I gained a new appreciation for the wisdom in Wendell Berry’s poem “To Know the Dark.” When we go into the dark with a light, we don’t actually learn what the dark is and what mysteries it holds. We remain insulated in our bubble of light. For me, the light that shone along my professional path has been extinguished. I am now going dark. And as Berry testifies, I have found that the dark too blooms and sings. As the news slowly spread, colleagues at my institution and from around the country wrote kind and encouraging notes. People I had never met wrote to say they appreciated and valued what I’ve written. Former and current students wrote long emails and letters of gratitude. I felt like Tom Sawyer walking into his own funeral.
There is a grace too in having the extrinsic motivations for scholarship and learning stripped away. I had recently finished reading Zena Hitz’s Lost in Thought, and now I was newly struck by her celebration of people who pursued knowledge in adverse circumstances. As she concludes, “Failure is perhaps the best-trod route to inwardness,” to pursuing wisdom for its own sake. Having the extrinsic goods associated with learning radically pruned back can be profoundly clarifying. Whether my loss of these goods is temporary or permanent, this pruning forces me to ask why I want to seek understanding, why I am motivated to read and write and teach and question. Do I engage in these activities to earn the respect of my peers, the admiration of my students, or a salary increase from my institution? Or do I pursue them because I have taken Solomon’s advice to heart and genuinely believe that “wisdom is the principal thing”?