Light in the Darkness

by Stacey Watkins-Griffith, DMin, Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference
Staff Therapist, Sanctuary Counseling Group (formerly Methodist Counseling and Consultation Services)

I am always struck in January by how dark it seems once the holiday lights come down. Whether up before daylight or returning home in the evenings, it just seems darker than before everyone began decorating for the holidays. There is something about the loss of light that makes cold January feel bleak and dreary. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, the gospel writer tells us, but in the bleak midwinter, it doesn’t always feel that way. 

There was a time when depression brought most clients into my office at Sanctuary Counseling Group, but increasingly it is anxiety that spurs people to seek sanctuary. This anxiety is multi-faceted. The global concerns involving tensions among nations and the seeming inability to work toward peace provide a framework of anxious uncertainty. In our own country, violence and hate generate fear. Daily concerns about financial security, health care, and how to balance life add an additional layer of worry. I find myself reflecting on the places in scripture where Jesus encourages us “not to worry” and “not to be anxious.” These invitations to a different way of living in a broken world are offered because, as humans, we do worry, and we are anxious. Brene’ Brown has written a book titled Braving the Wilderness, where she explores the pervasive fear in our culture and the paradigms that keep us separate. Particularly troubling are her observations that as a culture we are increasingly polarized and struggle to listen to one another. Brown has written that we are “hard wired for connection,” and yet it seems that our contemporary culture encourages disconnection and divisiveness.

Another issue which emerges in counseling with increasing frequency is a concern about the place of social media in our lives. The “Me too” posts have provided opportunity for those who have been deeply wounded to find their voice and to connect with others. These posts have also stirred memories and associations that many people have kept buried and are unsure how to process. At times, social media masquerades as a way to bring us together, when in fact we feel further apart. Increasingly, I hear people expressing awareness that rather than feeling more connected through social media apps, they find themselves feeling lonely and disconnected. 

But what are we to do, as people of faith? As clergy, lay leaders, and counselors, how do we stay grounded in the midst of the anxiety that swirls about? How do we live in the Light when it feels like the darkness is gaining momentum?

The practices I offer are those I have received from my colleagues at Sanctuary, the clients who invite me to sojourn with them, and those I find helpful in my own life. More process than event, staying grounded and living in the light is something that we practice daily: 
  • Keep a gratitude journal. There is something about writing that can be therapeutic and healing.  Research has indicated that a focus on gratitude can be a powerful counter-balance to anxiety. It doesn’t have to be time consuming, and in fact may seem simplistic, but try writing down three things each day for which you are thankful. I tried this last summer when I went on vacation. Typically, about the time I feel relaxed enough to enjoy my vacation, it is time to go home. So I started writing in my gratitude journal on day 1. It was interesting to observe how quickly I was able to be present and how the restorative nature of the vacation stayed with me after I got home. 
  • Be intentional about what you put in. A little less tangible than writing in a journal, be intentional in what you are reading, what you are watching on television, and what you are viewing online. Remember the advertisements that said “you are what you eat?” Our brains wire around what we read, watch, and listen to. So be intentional in putting good things inside your brain. 
  • Limit screen time. Intentionally limit the amount of time you spend online and using social media apps. What is healthy for you and what is healthy for me may be different, so experiment and find what works best for you. I have found that there is very little I read on my email after 8:00 pm that cannot be addressed at 8:00 am the next morning; but there are a multitude of things that will disturb my sleep if I read them at night. So, I intentionally try not to check my email after 8:00 in the evenings. I have also found it helpful to ask myself before I go online, “Is this the best use of my time right now?”  Sometimes the answer is yes, and I surf away. At other times, the answer is no, and I move on to the next right thing. 
  • Practice meditation. Our faith tradition is a rich resource for grounding and centering whether through contemplative prayer or insight meditation. My introduction to mindfulness meditation came through the book One Minute Mindfulness by Donald Altman. These guided meditations take literally 60 seconds to complete.  I keep the book on my bedside table for those times when my thoughts—anxious, stressed, preoccupied—just won’t turn off . Yoga and breathing exercises are also helpful ways to stay grounded in the present moment. 
The Gospel writer speaks truth: the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. As we move together through the bleak midwinter, may we stay grounded in this truth and may we intentionally practice living in the Light. 

Leadership Development