As the days get shorter, narrowing in on the winter solstice, some stories appear that seem to take on the coloration and menace of the gathering darkness, and to raise grim questions. For instance, there is the story of Boo Yeol Park, a Korean immigrant who came to our city two years ago and opened a grocery store, where he worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week, assisted by his wife, sister, brother-in-law and two children. He was an open-hearted, cheerful man. Friendless himself in a strange country, he went out of his way to make friends. Poor himself, he gave out of his scarcity to the poor; he would seek out those in his neighborhood who were hungry and take them big bags of free food.
Last Thursday night, two masked gunmen entered his store. One struck his sister on the head with a revolver, made her open the cash drawer and took $60. Then the second robber, the one with the shotgun, pointed the weapon at Park's chest and pulled the trigger, killing him. Upon which the two fled out into the night that had spawned them.
Our news stories carried all this: the who, what, where and when that such items are supposed to have. The "why" part of it, however, was vague, and only served to let more darkness in. One paper hinted that Park may have been killed for being Korean. Another carried quotes from neighbors saying no, there had to be some other reason than that. All that was really known was that Park had not been resisting. He was standing with his hands over his head, and the man killed him. Thus "Why?" was left up in the air, where night lay blackly over the district.
Ancient man, too, knew such darkness. At this time of year, what little light he had was cold and gray. And as daylight shrank ever shorter, there arose the old primitive fear that this process would not cease, that the sun would go out, bringing on universal night, eternal winter. And in such ongathering darkness, dark deeds took on an elemental menace. And we, too, feel this. Why did the robber kill Park? The news accounts do not tell us that.
But questions like these have something to do with why I find myself reading "Paradise Lost" at about this time each year. Because Milton helps me understand things. He is not loath to use that four-letter word that was long ago banished from our reporting as obscene or unnecessary: evil.
To Milton's way of looking at the world, there was such a thing: the malicious itch to harm other people for no reason other than the nasty kick of it. And Milton knew, from introspection if from nowhere else, that such a thing was in man. And we modern men know this thing too -- from introspection as-well as from news. So some of us read "Paradise Lost" to keep abreast of current events. For that old epic is not "irrelevant" to those who need some "why" to go with the who, what, where and when.
Milton's Satan, whose motto was "Evil be thou my good," shows us that. For every destructive thing he did proceeded, as Milton tells us, out of "a sense of injur'd merit." Which is to say that Satan was put out because he didn't have as much power as he wanted. Although, of course, he had as much as he deserved. But that wouldn't do. For in a universe where he might have learned things, or loved things, he loved only the notion of himself as powerful. And, thwarted in that, he became nasty, malevolent and vicious because he just plain flat-out wanted to. And out of this impotent rage brought death on Adam and Eve; who were, like Park, just standing there.
And so the bright lights of our holiday shine out against a double darknes; the dimming of the literal light where, in the middle of that web of common meaning that is our "news," there lurk black, spider-like events that do not explain themselves, that bring on our primitive dread that all the light will fail.
Out of this darkness, the bright lights of Hanukah and of Christmas shine with about the same meaning. Whereas ancient man kindled bonfires in his Decembers, hoping by sympathetic magic to rekindle the sun, we Christians and Jews, in the Festival of lights and in the colored lights of Christmas, have an extra meaning in mind. For what is spelled out as law in Judaism is also accepted as practice in Christianity: that the lights of this season must not be used for any practical purpose. They are not there to dispel literal darkness, but to brighten that night of a deeper kind that threatens to overwhelm us.
Whatever hope we modern Americans have in this darkening time is hard-won, and we have needed more than the bare light bulb of fact to understand the meaning of events. And if the recent Gallop poll is any indication of what we think and feel, our world is not so far from Milton's. Seven out of 10 of us do in fact believe in the existence of Satan -- as well we might. And 96 percent of us believe in God, as well we need to. Not for our bitter world is the summery outlook of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway, who always looked forward to the longest day of the year and felt "sad" when it passed. Because we are those whom winter has taught to rekindle the old, bright lights. And for more than just a party on the lawn.