A Fear of Darkness

We have nine grandchildren, all under the age of six. And they are spread out across the country — Denver, Houston, Indianapolis, and just down the road in West Lafayette. One of our granddaughters, Madelyn, just turned three and she got to have a sleepover at Grammy and Pap Pap’s this summer. Without Mommy or Daddy. And she got to sleep in a big bed all by herself. It was a big deal.

We had practice drills, of course, so there wasn’t a catastrophe that weekend. Grammy started off with afternoon naps in the big bed and then an overnight with Mommy sleeping in a nearby bedroom. On that first test night, as Madelyn scrambled into the big bed and the lights were turned off, the inevitable happened. Madelyn realized that she was going to be in a strange room by herself in the dark.

Now I can’t imagine what fears may be lurking in the mind of a 3-year-old as she contemplates the darkness. But no matter how Grammy or Pap Pap or Mommy tried to calm her and assure her that she was safe, Madelyn was having none of it. It wasn’t until we installed a little night light in the outlet by her bed that her fears subsided and she (and we) were able to fall asleep without fear, wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Fear of the dark is common for many children. Perhaps when you were younger, you were afraid when the lights went out. Child psychologists have determined that the combination of the naturally active childhood imagination with a lack of comforting visual stimuli is what prompts fearful night-time outbursts from children between the ages of 2 and 5.[1] Once they hit 4 or 5 years of age, as the brain naturally develops a better understanding of reality and fantasy, children are more successfully able to self-soothe and, therefore, are able to fall asleep more easily. But anytime a person — child or adult — shuts off the lights in new surroundings, it is easy for the brain to go into overdrive. I travel often and I’ll admit, when I travel somewhere and try to sleep in a new environment, I have those momentary anxieties when I’m alone in a hotel room and turn off the lights. My guess is that some of you experience this, too, when you try to go to sleep in an unfamiliar place. The darkness seems tangible. And frightening.

Darkness and Light Examined

Yet, darkness is not corporeal. It is not tangible. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Light, on the other hand, has physical properties. It travels like a wave and interacts like a particle; it is energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation. Scientifically speaking, light exists independent of darkness, but darkness cannot be understood without light.

Metaphorically, however, darkness and light have independent properties. Reading or watching the daily news provides evidence of just how much human darkness exists in the world — selfishness, apathy, hatred, injustice, bigotry, racism, and greed. Indeed, these forms of darkness do appear to be tangible and self-perpetuating, brought into sharper relief when compared to the light that people can bring into the world: examples of empathy, generosity, openness, peace, and love. Francis Bacon, the great English philosopher and statesman, once said, “In order for the light to shine so brightly, the darkness must be present.” Thus, when we speak of the world in which we live, the scientific facts about light seem appear to be converse — it is because of human darkness that we understand more clearly our need for light.

The Light of Truth

On this day, we officially begin a new academic year at Valparaiso University. A University whose motto is In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem — In Thy Light We See Light. You will see many reminders of that motto as you become more familiar with the campus: the sun screen above the entrance to the Arts & Sciences building depicting the University motto in Latin and the word “Light” in 50 languages. The campus newspaper, “The Torch.” The residence hall named “Beacon.” The symbols for light are everywhere.

In Luce Tua Videmus Lucem — In Thy Light We See Light. At Valpo, we offer another perspective on this tension between light and dark. That is, the metaphor of light as truth and darkness as ignorance. And because you are at a University whose ethos is informed by and imbued with the Lutheran Christian tradition, all of us who are called to this place came here and work here to seek truth, serve generously, and cultivate hope. We believe that the innate curiosity that propels our pursuit of truth is a gift from God. We believe that your intelligence and your curiosity are gifts from God. And we believe that our shared and relentless pursuit of truth can and will lead to new insights. That’s because we believe that truth continues to be revealed to us by our Creator. Here, at this nexus of faith and learning, we seek the light of truth, acknowledging that God is at the heart of our truth-seeking journey. And God lights the way.

In addition, as truth-seekers we do not ignore or deny the darkness of this world, but, instead, uphold the light of truth, embracing the eternal mystery that light begets more light. Finally, we reflect the light of truth, illuminating the darkness and revealing God’s light in all things. In short, we look to the Source of all light and truth for the courage, knowledge, and wisdom we need to overcome the darkness that seems so prevalent in the world. Indeed, the darkness of the world can feel heavy and inescapable. However, we know from John 1:5 that “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Today we welcome and celebrate the new students, faculty, and staff who have joined this special community dedicated to seeking, upholding, and reflecting the light of truth. But what does that mean exactly and what is expected of us?

Seeking the Light of Truth

American philosopher and academic Allan Bloom once described the process of education as: “moving from darkness to light.” That word, “education,” conjures up images of classrooms and rows of desks, homework and projects, teachers and classmates. The Latin root for educate means to “lead out.” To lead out of ignorance toward truth and understanding. To lead out of darkness into light. It’s the principal reason for why you have come to Valpo.

Your time as a Valpo scholar will offer manifold opportunities for you to pursue truth, to discover and develop your passions, your vocation, and your gifts. Those opportunities will come your way not only in your formal classes, but through your interactions with your classmates and with faculty and staff across the University, through your active participation in clubs and organizations, athletic teams, Greek life, visual and performing arts activities, volunteer and philanthropic efforts. By discovering, strengthening, and utilizing those unique talents and abilities given to you by God in collaboration with other like-minded people, you pursue the light of truth.

Indeed, at this University at the nexus of Athens and Jerusalem, truth can be revealed through opportunities we have to dialogue with, learn from, and be challenged by those whose background, perspectives, and gifts are different than our own. As you collaborate with classmates and professors whose race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, religious creeds, and beliefs differ from your own, that word “education” will take on deeper significance. But this will only happen if you proactively seize the opportunity to be led out of your current state of knowledge and understanding toward a richer and deeper level of experience and insight.

Upholding the Light of Truth

In just a few minutes, you will be making a personal commitment to uphold the light of truth embodied in the Valparaiso University Honor Code. For more than seven decades, Valpo students have modeled the importance of honesty and trust through this signature program first created by students in 1943. I can assure you, that you will lose track of the number of times you will attest to your academic honesty on all of your papers, exams, and assignments. Yet, the Valpo Honor Code will force you to reconcile what you know to be true about your academic honesty before signing your name to those words publicly, knowing full well the consequences of your actions if you lie. Through this experience, reinforced across the University day in and day out, you will learn how people in a community of peers hold one another accountable for their actions. The Honor Code will reinforce the virtue of honesty and cultivate integrity — a consistency between your words and your actions. In short, it provides you with a shining example of how one can uphold the light of truth.

Reflecting the Light of Truth

So far, we’ve considered how, at Valpo, we seek the light of truth and how we uphold that light. As we consider the third dimension of our relationship with the light of truth, I am reminded of the 19th-century author, Edith Wharton, who wrote, “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

During your time at Valpo, I encourage you to remember that we are on a journey to pursue the light of truth together. Today you join a family of more than 4,000 fellow students, 1,000 faculty and staff, and more than 60,000 alumni worldwide in whom the Valpo flame burns brightly. Valpo is a place where you will learn to be a servant-leader, someone who takes that light burning inside and both passes that flame to spread the light and reflects it to light the way for others. Know and trust that as you spread and reflect that light, your Valpo family will do the same for you!

For some of you, those servant-leadership lessons will be the result of your time as a student-athlete. Being part of a team creates a unique opportunity to learn how to simultaneously lead the way and work alongside your teammates as equals. For others, the clubs and organizations you join will offer experiences to nurture servant-leadership and practice generosity during Spring Break service trips, Greek life activities, or local volunteer work in the city of Valparaiso. It does not matter where you learn how to spread and reflect the light of truth, what matters is that you do.

Seize this Unique Opportunity

As you participate in the Convocation rituals this afternoon, you will officially become part of a global community committed to pursue, uphold, and reflect the light of truth, understanding that it is through God’s light that we see light. Students, as you leave this Convocation, I challenge each of you to consider these next years of your life not only as an opportunity to earn an academic degree from a world-renowned institution, but also as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore your passions, discover your vocation, come to know your classmates and teammates deeply and richly, and bring light to a dark, cynical, and weary world.

This is the pursuit set before you as good people who will do great things for a world that needs you. This is the pursuit that defines Valparaiso University and will do so for generations to come.

May God bless each of you and Valparaiso University as together we seek, uphold, and reflect God’s light.

Welcome to Valpo!

[1] Sue Hubbard, M.D., “The Kid’s Doctor: Fear of the dark is a normal part of development”, Chicago Tribune, 2012.

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