“I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory to my whole life.”
-C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy
Exploring a cave is wonderful — in the literal sense of the word — for it allows you, in a way, to be born again. Born again, not as in some spiritual awakening, but rather born as a babe is when she is thrust into a world she does not know.
When my parents woke us up at the unforgiving hour of 6:00 AM to take a trip to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, I expected a few things: a squished ride in a loud car, a desperate effort by my parents to have a happy family vacation, and a weak feeling of gratitude for something nice in nature that I had taken for granted.
What I did not expect was an unmaking.
But first, why bother to write about this experience at all, seeing that most of us do not venture into caves all that often? Well, because I do not think this little cave so different from the whole of life.
So, Plato forgive me, as I attempt to explain how descending into the darkness of a cave actually awakened me to the “real world.”
If a babe just born could speak, perhaps her small mouth might say that, only seconds before, the outer world was unimaginable. In fact, by simply seeing the world, the capacity of her imagination actually grew, for the imagination’s size correlates to the excellence of its function. And like her imagination, her very capacity to feel was broadened as she naturally reacted to such wonders. She was like a book being written: as concepts and images filled the book, the number of its pages actually increased along with its content.
Venturing into a cave is like this. Perhaps most satisfying is that since the scene is totally and completely new, you have not yet placed yourself as an actor in it. You have abandoned yourself at the entrance of the cave where the daylight ends, and as you descend farther away from the light, you leave behind your inflated ego in the world that the “I” (and the eye) knows. Bring a completely new space, and for a few curious moments, we are only capable of receiving. We have yet to build up opinions, critiques, or preferences.
Next comes an avalanche of gratitude. You would think that light would be the immediate object of your gratitude, but that actually comes later, when fear has time to regain its position over the initial wonder. Instead you are grateful that there is such a thing as “extra,” or “bonus,” creation — extra in the sense that because you did not know it even existed just minutes before, it is literally extra in your world.
And here I will go as far as saying that you experience a sort of love. Yes, love. Josef Pieper, a twentieth-century German philosopher, defines love as affirming another’s existence. It is looking at someone and saying, “It is so good that you exist.” In other words, love is giving a creature the right to exist by your own authority.
Well, while traversing through this underworld, it struck me that everything around me could have just as easily not existed at all. This realization hit me most poignantly when our tour guide had us blow out our candle-lit lanterns, the only things allowing us to see the surrounding fairyland.
And suddenly, there was nothing. A darkness so that you could not make out your own hand.
In those moments of darkness, I actually missed, like you might a loved one, the immense beauty. I had so quickly gotten used to the cave and too quickly taken it for granted.
But why be sad at all? Just hours before such beauties did not even exist in my world. I had no conception of the pink rock that hung like draperies, the twisting figures fit for a king and queen of any age to live in, or the sparkling coral-like stone that flowered on every wall. Hours before I did not have the capacity to imagine such a land, and now I had the audacity to say I missed it?
But my reaction was innocent. I did not miss the beauty because I wished to use it for myself. No, our tour guide told us how fingerprints of greedy hands had turned the rose-gold rocks to black and stopped their growth. No, my longing was not one of coveting. It stemmed from the love I explained above. I, unknowingly, had begun to affirm the goodness of the cave’s existence, and then, it was gone. The new world had been formed, had made a home in my heart, and when that world disappeared, I felt the hole where it used to be.
As we made our way back to the entrance, I was careful not to look down as much. Entering the cave, I was so worried about how I held my lantern and if I was warm and if I remembered to pack gum and how I could avoid playing another game of “doggie” with my youngest cousin and when I was going to check my email that I did not remember to fully wonder at the beauty around me. I had gotten used to creation and simply saw it as a space for my own ego to fill. But after experiencing that darkness, I walked back on the unpaved path in quiet and felt my eyes wander instead of my worried mind.
We can make ourselves blind with distractions, worries, and fears. And by doing so, undo the creation all around us. For in reality, when we blew out our candles, the creation of the cave did not cease to exist. It simply went unnoticed in those moments, unheeded, because we had removed the light. The darkness had drowned out what was all around us.
As I emerged from the cave, I looked at the sky we see every day with its wispy-pink clouds, felt the hot rays of the sun on my skin, and walked with my family to that wonderfully crowded car — and I began to see them, too. Yes, we need light from a source outside of ourselves to truly see. But the light is doing all that it can to draw our attention to the beauty. It is our job to not blind ourselves. There comes a point when we ourselves have to choose to see the wonder of it all — for it is truly good that it exists.