When the Lights Went Out

By Patrick J. Deneen for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

The snow started here in the D.C. area around noon on Friday. By nightfall most everything outside lay covered by a deep blanket of white, and in the darkness one could hear the cracking of branches and even entire trees thumping into the deep and heavy snow. The power went out here at about 10 p.m. on Friday night, and stayed off for more than 24 hours, until midnight or so on Saturday.

On occasion, when the power goes out, one witnesses extraordinary outbreaks of mayhem and looting. Utter darkness where one is accustomed to light and attendant fixtures of modern civilization seems to bring out the maniacal and lawless in people, especially city-dwelling denizens who – like Gyges, unseen with a ring of invisibility – interpret such cessation of electricity as permission to rampage.

While less newsworthy, the opposite happened when the lights went out in our neighborhood by the Potomac River. In that true blanketing of darkness, we experienced the full measure of neighborliness and community – more than is often the case when we have full benefit of electricity.

During the day it was better to be outside, beginning the daunting task of digging out. By nightfall the neighborhood was dark and silent, but for the cracking of branches. It was then that in most houses the cold began to pierce. But in our house, outfitted several years ago with a wood-burning stove and well-stocked with firewood that I’d split throughout the course of the year, we were warm and comfortable. Candlelight was in abundance, and we had a good stock of food and drink for the duration.

And so we welcomed into our home some families in less comfortable circumstance. The women cooked a large pot of chili while the men and boys played a raucous game of “Apples-to-Apples.” By the flickering of candlelight and next to the warmth of the woodstove we ate our bowls of chili – never had warm home-cooked food tasted so good – with wine and beer adding to the cheer. After dinner the children played hide-and-seek in the darkness of the house, while the adults conversed late into the dark, cold night by the warmth of candles and burning wood. We tasted there the origin of human communities, pulled together by the shroud of darkness and the comfort of fellowship amid the cold and silence. The voices of companionship and simple flickering light brought more cheer than the recessed halogen lights of a renovated kitchen and a flat-screen TV with seven hundred channels. The utter necessity of simplicity made one conscious of small blessings like light, warmth, food and fellowship.

And several times we asked each other – why does it take the absence of electricity to bring people together like this? Could the very thing that makes our lives so easy also be that which makes it so much harder, particularly in encouraging our separation into our private retreats? What of our children, who for that evening were well satisfied with simple board games and ancient forms of play, when otherwise nothing can content them other than the hyper-stimulation of electronic media?

And I wondered – why not turn out the lights more often?

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