Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

Surprised by the Light: Lessons from a Junkyard

Gems of spiritual life turn up in the most unexpected places.


Now and then I have a sense of something shining, something that beckons. I can’t pin it down or fence it in. It’s certainly not going to fit in a neat little box. Words can’t fully contain or express it. But there’s something there, all right—and it’s radiant. 

 

 

 A few years ago, on a plane’s final descent, I was mesmerized by the dance of sunlight on water—on lakes and streams and swimming pools. The light’s touch often came in the form of a bright flash, transforming blue waters to a shimmering silver. Each new trick of the sun brightened and warmed me inside, bringing a hushed sense of wonder and delight.

Then, as we drew close to the airport, the landscape started to shift. Elegant homes and turquoise pools were clearly behind us now, replaced by warehouses and railroad tracks. We approached a giant junkyard, a mortuary of crushed and dismembered vehicles.

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My impulse was to pull down the window shade in disgust. I wanted to hold on to those beautiful images of sunlight dancing on the water, not to overwrite them with an ugly scene like this.

 

But just then, something caught my attention. That same radiance that had cheered me before winked brightly at me once again. This time, though, the flash of light came from the very pinnacle of the junkyard—a towering stack of crushed cars. For just a brief moment, those homely and humbled vehicles had caught the light. And despite their mortal wounds, they still contained enough reflective stuff to catch the sun’s rays and bounce them back to me. Had I pulled down the window shade or turned my head away, I would have missed it. 

 

As a researcher, I spend much of my time looking at the light and shadow of spiritual life. Sometimes it’s easy to see the bright side. After all, religious teachings can offer some answers to life’s big questions. Spiritual role models can give us inspiration and guidance. Faith in an all-powerful, all-loving deity can bring a deep sense of comfort and connection. Sometimes, good deeds do indeed seem to be rewarded, and significant events unfold in a way that seems right to us. 

But let’s be honest here. Religion and spirituality don’t always look so pretty. In some cases, fervent prayers and earnest displays of faith are followed by crushing disappointments. Religious leaders sometimes fail us through displays of prejudice, greed, or hypocrisy. When bad things happen to good people, some blame God and become bitter; others are quick to blame themselves and to assume that God is punishing them. And if we turn to a sacred text for solace, there’s a chance that we might stumble on some material that fills us with doubt or terror instead.

Frankly, it makes sense that we would prefer to avoid these ugly scenes—the jagged and junky side of religious and spiritual life. We don’t expect to see any light there. So we turn our heads away, or we pull down the window shade.

Some turn away in obvious ways, deciding that religion is uniformly toxic or dismissing spirituality as mere fluff and fantasy. Others cultivate private forms of spirituality while retreating from the many frustrations of organized religion. Some maintain a firm grip on their religious beliefs and find creative ways to block unpleasant views: If doubts or questions arise, immediately replace them with faith. When anger rears its head, be quick to push it down. When confronted with cases of tragedy and grave injustice, tell yourself that those who suffer so mightily must deserve it somehow.

Yet if we are willing to take a closer look at these battered and broken fragments of religious and spiritual life, we may find some flashes of light there, too—light that just might catch us by surprise. Strong negative emotions such as anger and fear, once acknowledged, can actually help to illuminate problem areas in our relationships and our thinking. A willingness to critically examine our cherished beliefs can open us to flashes of insight, setting the stage for personal breakthrough and transformation. Even in the face of tremendous injustice and suffering, we may see a glimmer of light in the faces of those who come to help. We may even find the strength to try to make a difference ourselves. 

Granted, our human attempts to find light in bleak places are likely to be fumbling and imperfect. But if we can resist that impulse to turn away, there’s a chance that any one of life’s apparent trash heaps might yield a few treasures. And who knows? Maybe there’s a way that we, even on our most broken and shabby days, can still catch a few of those sunbeams and reflect them back to our world. 

 

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

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