Afraid of the Dark?

There’s nothing in the dark that’s not there in the light.

Frank Burns, M.A.S.H., “Hawk’s Nightmare” (Season 5, Ep. 14)

I remember watching M.A.S.H. with my dad when I was a kid. Seems like it was so long ago. Fortunately, modern technology has brought us streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu which allow us to jump into the time machine and watch classic television shows until we can’t see straight. I’ve recently been working my way through this old series, and today I came across the episode quoted above.

Hawkeye Pierce (played by Alan Alda) has begun sleepwalking. He thinks he is a kid again in Maine and plays out several scenes from his childhood, like playing basketball, marbles, and hopscotch. During the second of these events, he has a terrible nightmare where he watches his childhood friend hit a tree on a sled. As the episode progresses, Hawkeye becomes afraid to sleep. He doesn’t want to sleepwalk anymore, and he certainly doesn’t want to have any more nightmares. He tries to hang out in the Officers’ bar but ends up alone. So he goes to his tent and wakes up Frank Burns (Larry Linville), a straight-laced paradox of a character that everyone likes to torment. Burns tells Hawkeye that when he was little, his dad took away his Popeye night light because “it’s dark 12 hours out of 24 each day and I don’t want my son to be a coward half the time.” Hawkeye then asks if Frank has ever been afraid to go to sleep. Burns scoffs and then ends the conversation with the quote above. Hawkeye’s face after that line is priceless. He is stunned by the profundity of the statement, especially coming from Frank.

I have to admit – so was I. I don’t really know how many times I’ve seen that episode, but that line never hit me like it did today.

A thorough reading of the Bible makes it clear that God realizes how powerful fear can be from the human perspective. He tells us frequently not to be afraid. Jesus prefaced several interactions with the disciples with that admonishment, as if He knew that fear would be the natural response to what was happening. In 2 Timothy 1:7, the writer reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the opposite of fear – instead of weakness, hatred, and recklessness, it is power, love, and self-discipline. Jesus tells us that we are the “light of the world”, a shining “city on a hill.” We are because of the Holy Spirit, which illuminates all that is around it.

Nevertheless, some Christians remain afraid. They become convinced that darkness hides evil things, and that if they just stay in the light the “dark things” won’t come out. So they stay awake, vigilantly scanning the world around them, desperately trying to avoid closing their eyes. But as Frank Burns so sagely noted, nothing exists only in the dark. When we turn on the bedroom light in the morning, all the things we see were there in the dark, too. Turning on the light doesn’t change that – it only allows us to see those things for what they are.

In the episode, Hawkeye’s dreams were connected to something he already knew about himself – he hated the war and he was afraid of dying. He just didn’t want to think about it. He thought that if he stayed “in the light,” he wouldn’t have to deal with the “dark things.” He learned that his nightmares weren’t the problem – they were just the messengers.

When the Spirit turns on the lights in our hearts, there will be things there that scare us. We’ve always known about them. We’ve tried to keep them from God, hold onto them for ourselves. We may be ashamed of them. We may have so many regrets. We may feel useless or out of control. So we tell the Spirit that He can have most of our soul, but He really doesn’t want to open “that door.” So fear begins to breed and fester, eventually becoming so strong that we feel weak, helpless, and reckless. We find ourselves further and further from God because His light shows us too much. We turn off our own lights, too, because there are things we just don’t want to see.

Maybe we’ve forgotten that if we are truly the light of the world, then the darkness flees from us. Light and shadow cannot exist together. There is no fear of the dark anymore, because God’s spirit shows all things for what they are.

Don’t be afraid to go to sleep. Nothing can hurt us there anymore.

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