There was a moment of utter darkness as I stood in the incinerated remains of the kitchen in my brother’s apartment.
The fire had burnt so hot it had shattered the windows, which the building owner had boarded up with wooden planks. It was early November, and while the makeshift cover fulfilled its purpose of keeping out most of the elements, it also blocked any natural light in the small one-bedroom flat. There was no electricity as the fire had eaten through all the wiring. The only pockets of visibility came from the maglite that the owner’s daughter had brought along for the inspection, and the glare of our cell-phone flashlights.
As we shuffled through the rubble, the images that appeared in the small cones of light revealed scenes of a most bizarre nature. Whatever the fire had not destroyed had been mostly reduced to a skeleton frame, with the occasional scorched piece of fabric hanging off, clinging desperately to the memory of its former state. Much like my brother’s body, which was on life support, there was not much substance left in the few belongings that he could ever call his own. Straining to take in the bigger picture, I couldn’t make out a single spot in the flat that had not been battered, blackened or melted into an unrecognizable shape in the all-consuming heat.
Of all these eerie sculptures, none was more disturbing than the futuristic creation that presented itself in the kitchen: a cluster of dirty syringes, filthy plates and soiled pots and pans, all merged and fused onto the surface of the formica table. A monstrous beast on four legs. A nameless embodiment of addiction. The sight of the creature plunged me into a void that I had forgotten existed.
Without moving a muscle, I was transported. I am no longer inside the apartment; I am no longer in the here and now. I am at a different part of the city, standing in Platzspitz, a small park behind Zurich’s main station, better known as Needle Park, a very dark chapter in the rich city’s history. I am 16, I am 17, 18, 19, 20 and looking for my brother. People are cooking up heroin with cigarette lighters and spoons in the small pavilion, shooting up in broad daylight, some of them passed out or asleep with needles still stuck in a vein, some covered in blood, excrement or vomit. Broken glass, trash and soiled rags blend in with loud disputes and quiet despair. I dared to come here every once in a while, when he disappeared. Sometimes I found him. Sometimes I didn’t. What I saw and what I experienced during those visits stayed with me. I had worked through most of it, or so I thought, but in the kitchen, I was back in Platzspitz and I was lost, overwhelmed by sense memories and struggling for control.
I felt my knees buckle but I didn’t want to give in. I needed to find my way back. My husband stood a few feet away and without a word stepped next to me. He knows me well enough to know that I need space when thought storms come. His quiet affirmation of presence broke the fall, but the darkness – the absence of light, of connection, of sensation – lingered for quite some time.
In Beyond Good and Evil Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” There is a cost and toll of trying to help someone who just can’t be helped.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” said Martin Luther King Jr. in his transcendent speech against hate. But when you are stuck in a void, even letting in the light requires effort.
As human beings, we are prone to suffering. The abyss that we face might be different for each one of us, but at some point in our lives we all face hardship and challenges, or get trapped in circumstances beyond our control. I have long said that despite the many trials that life has thrown my way, I believe in the power of what is good, and in the capacity to do good. And it is this essential human spark of kindness and connection that allows us to conquer the darkness — allows us to be gently nudged away from the abyss when we run the risk of falling in.
I guess, just as some people have faith in organized religion, I have faith in the human spirit: that despite our flaws, we can choose to do good. That we can try to do the right thing even if it sometimes backfires spectacularly. That we have a silent superpower to make a difference in our lives and others’ by simply being kind to ourselves and there for each other. That even though we may appear broken and alone, it is this superpower that makes us whole, and our constant effort to stay true to it and use it what keeps us whole.
2019 had me balancing on the edge of the abyss for most of the year. Apart from the fire’s long aftermath, the year was scattered with death and diagnoses, bad news and sucker punches. But through it all, it was also a year filled with an incredible show of soul from my circle of friends. With every new blow, they stepped up and popped their head into my introvert cave, reminding me that it was okay not to be okay sometimes. A steady, quiet influx – of messages, letters, gifts and even a homemade gin cake – helped create a map and light the way back out of the void, even when self-doubt wanted to push me off course.
And this is when I realized who, I think, we truly are: we are arclights.
Much like the first carbon-based electrical lamps, we need a spark to get going and shine brightest when we can strike the arc that exists between us. Fittingly, because of their strength and intensity, the original arc lights were used in lighthouses, to provide safe passage for ships in the dark, and in movie projectors, to breathe life into stories on the big screen. As human arclights, we hold this same power. In fact, the essence of who we are and the impact our words and actions have on others have the capacity to outlive us.
“People you love never die… They don’t die. Not completely. They live in your mind, the way they always lived inside you. You keep their light alive. If you remember them well enough, they can still guide you, like the shine of long-extinguished stars could guide ships in unfamiliar waters.”
This passage from Matt Haig’s How to Stop Time echoes my sentiment. But even more so, I believe we all carry a spark that can help reignite someone’s fire when they are no longer able to do it themselves – and it is our duty to look after that spark and hold onto it like our lives and the lives of others depend on it. Because in my opinion, they do.
The outbreak of the pandemic has thrown us into a new and (for most of us) unexpected world, posing global threats and challenges to all humans, regardless of their race, gender, age or ethnicity. The course that we choose to resolve this threat will have a lasting impact on the evolution of the human race. Yuval Noah Harari concluded a recent Financial Times piece about the world after coronavirus as follows:
“Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”
In other words, will we become an immense network of arclights, pooling our sparks to chase away the darkness so we can pull through and out together?
Despite disheartening incidents and setbacks over the past months, there have also been many signs of hope, proving that we are capable of a collective effort to effect positive change. When my daughter asks how we are going to make it out of this, I point to the people who help, who support and who act to protect others, even it means staying at home. In many countries, people have stood on their balconies and in front of their homes to clap for the nurses and key workers who risk their lives for all of us.
As a big fan of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, I realized that our collective spirit is just like Tinkerbell at a pivotal point in the beloved children’s story. We may be poisoned by the virus, weakened and fragile, but with enough of a spark left to spring back to life, if only the audience could wake up and get involved.
Only then can we create a spark in the dark that will shine and outlive us all – and yes, I for one “do believe!”
© Susan Platt
A Swiss-based multilingual communications professional and business executive, Susan was part of the original launch and editorial team behind Swiss movie magazine close-up! and has written, ghostwritten and edited for several publications and in-house magazines in English, German, French and Italian. She currently pens for online culture mag The Woolf.
If not busy running after two dogs, a digital native or cool ventures, she can usually be found with her nose stuck in a book or online saving the world from goblins in some MMORPG or other.