“O woe is me, to have seen what I have seen, to see what I see!” – Ophelia, Hamlet
The journey home from Research Ed at Swindon in the November twilight slipped into night, the tail lights of the traffic ahead gleamed brighter in the gathering gloom, and brilliant flashes of colour erupted and fell again into the shadows. Fireworks, the heralds of winter darkness, announced their fleeting presence.
Another kind of darkness had troubled the edges of my mind throughout the day. At the conference, Professor Ray Land had spoken on the subject of threshold concepts: those points in our experience where we grasp a new concept that changes the way we see the world, and ourselves. The characteristics of such learning experiences, he explained, were uncertainty, anxiety, and a sense of revelation as a new perspective was discovered. They are often accompanied by a sense of loss, for our old perspectives, and our old views of ourselves. This is why such knowledge is sometimes described as ‘troublesome’. Land did not offer any evidence for his assertions, unless one counts quotations from peers; but the resonance with experience was apparent.
Examples of such concepts included gravity, the Copernican view of the solar system, evolution, and the banishment from the Garden of Eden. The serpent, in Land’s view, offers the opportunity to enter a new and exciting world which is much more interesting than the tame and confined experience of the Garden. It was this example that set me thinking on a darker road. For there are experiences that lead us to a knowledge we might wish we never had, or which distort our view of the world, and ourselves. They may qualify as thresholds, but new experiences are not good simply because they are new.
I think of the child who has suffered sexual abuse, who cannot perceive human intimacy without perceiving threat; or the child whose abuse though neglect has been so casual, so persistent, so normal, that a lifetime may not erase the message that he or she is of no value. I think of the woman who has been tortured, the humiliation and bewilderment of a marriage betrayed, of a parent’s trauma when a child falls into addiction and self-destruction. These indeed are liminal experiences, thresholds we may cross and from which there is no going back. Even returning, we will never be the same. They are life-changing, but they are not liberation. They are not ‘more interesting’. They are disasters that we would not wish on anyone.
I make the point because Land didn’t. The implication of his speech was that anxiety, uncertainty and liminality are inherently good, because they lead to change, whilst rest, peace and certainty are reductions of the human condition. Perhaps he didn’t mean this; perhaps he simply didn’t think it was worth clarifying because it was so obvious. But the subversion of the Eden story to suggest that seduction leads to a better outcome than fealty struck me as a perverse kind of wishfulness. The story of Eden is the coming of darkness into the human spirit. That such darkness exists is evident every day in the sorrows of those I encounter. Not all thresholds are to be crossed, nor should we wish them to be. Not even all intellectual endeavours are worthy of pursuit.
The road passed out from the temporary comfort of artificial light into the unlit countryside. Black hills appeared against the eerie, transient glow of the skyrockets. I was reminded then that the longest nights of all are where our predecessors chose to celebrate another story – the story of another crossing, of another kind of threshold: where the light broke into darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. It may be true that we cross some thresholds to our sorrow, and can never be the same. Yet there is hope too, not that the serpent promises of life will prove true, but that grace can do what regret cannot.
It is, as Hamlet might have put it, a consummation devoutly to be wished.