Just north of Austin there’s a 30,000 year old limestone cave that’s been turned into a tourist attraction. A friend of mine organized a group tour for a bunch of families, and we couldn’t resist the excuse to take a day off of homeschooling and call it a “field trip”. Besides, there were enough of us going to warrant discounted admission, so how could we say no?
The unfortunate truth is, I was grouchy that day. I can’t really explain the cause of my prickly attitude. I could say I was tired, or hormonal, or stressed out by the long to-do list of my life. But I’m also a grown-up. You’d think self-control and perspective would come in a package deal with years of our lives, but it doesn’t.
So when we walked into the waiting area for the tour, which was actually a giant gift shop, a fire started in my immature bones. My kids went berserk for bags of fool's’ gold, uncracked geodes, and personalized flashing light up keychains. I just went berserk.
“Mom! Look! A mood ring. Isn’t it cool?”
“Let me try it on,” I said. “Well, my mood is GROUCHY, so that must be what blue means.”
“Um...okay," he said. (Awkward pause in which my child stared at me like a lion in a cage.) Then he said, "Let’s go buy it!”
So we did. We bought the ring and a geode. Then the tour guide gathered us up and we entered the cave.
We followed a path into room after room of damp rock. I chatted with my friends along the way, keeping my gnarly emotional state distracted with catching up on kids’ schedules, trips to be taken, projects to be done. This is the best survival skill of the introvert on a bad day: keep the other people talking and hide in your own head.
Then, halfway through the tour, the guide announced that it was time to experience total darkness. All I could think was, I’ve been there before, lady. In fact, I think I’m actually already there now. My tendency to get a little overly dramatic is both part of my charm and what makes my husband bang his head against the wall when I treat our perfectly normal life like a Bronte tragedy.
“There are two rules in total darkness,” she said. “One: No moving. The rock formations don’t disappear with the light, and you could hurt yourself. So stand still. And two: NO SCREAMING.”
We all nodded in submission to the rules, and one second later every light in the cave went out. The guide told us to put our hand in front of our face. None of us could see it. It was completely silent and the darkest dark in all the world. I tilted my head back and tried to absorb the terrifying nothingness. I took a long, slow breath through my nose and begged God to help me remember what this was like later.
Because somehow, total darkness was exactly what I needed that day.
I pressed the words of Psalm 139 in between the pages of the memory I was creating there in the pitch blackness of the cave: “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”
I willed my soul to acknowledge that even this kind of darkness wasn’t dark at all to the God who is Light.
I thought, this is the point of life, the reason we get up every day and try to be kind even when we’re grouchy. It’s why we drag our broken hearts out on blind dates with perfect strangers when our mom’s coworker fixes us up. It’s why we go to work and then send our money to Africa to feed children we will never meet instead of blowing that cash on overpriced designer coffee. It’s why we get married and promise to love an imperfect person who could ruin us with one error in judgement. It’s why we forgive that person when they are a supreme and total jerk at 2am when the washing machine has flooded the downstairs. It’s why we have children and love them more than we can bear, despite their talent for making us crazy with their insistence to be a separate person with naive and foolish opinions of their own.
We have to learn to be still and quiet, avoid the giant rock formations, and just...trust, hope, love.
But the greatest of these is Love. And love was what I was absorbing in total darkness. Even there, at the heart of my snarky mood-ring attitude and overly dramatic view of life, I was worthy of God's Love.
When we walked up out of the cave we bought some more geodes before we went home. I still felt grouchy. But I didn't mind it so much.
I thanked God for the darkness, even though it's not dark to Him. I focused on being still and quiet so I could remember the Love.