Light in Dark Times – Column Riekje van Osnabrugge

18 december 2020

The poet Huub Oosterhuis wrote a poem that asked to wake my tenderness, to give me back the eyes of a child. That I see what is, that I trust again. And not hate the light.


In the first place: I am very afraid of the dark. I already know this feeling since I was a little girl and I never completely lost that fear. When I’m somewhere I cannot see a single thing, I panic, even if it’s in my own bedroom. On my bedside table, there is always a small flashlight, just in case the electricity fails. For me, light is first and foremost something that protects me, makes me feel safe. I don’t need a spotlight, a little light is enough. As long as I can see where I am, which direction I can go. I do not hate the light, but the darkness.


In this little poem as well, there is the desire to see. Namely: what ‘is’. I read it as that I may not only see where I am, but also that I may understand the situation I’m in. That I do not close my eyes to the hard reality. And that at the same time I can continue to see what is going well, what people are doing for each other, how much goodness and love has been unleashed.

The eyes of a child

Remarkably enough the poet does not ask for some light for this, but: ‘give me back the eyes of a child’. Can I see with the eyes of a child what is really going on? Perhaps because a child would still be openly curious and uninhibited, without the filter of suspicion or bad experiences? Personally, I do not like the romanticization of a child very much. Imagine that as a small child you already see and experience all kinds of things that are not safe or trustworthy!

Mildness and the Christmas child

Or does this longing for children’s eyes refer to ‘my tenderness’ in the first sentence, which has to be awakened in me? That brings me to the thought of Christmas, of the birth of that child. God is present in the world in a vulnerable child. A child that appeals to our care, our protection. That depends on it. Entrusting itself to us because the child has no other option. A child who, if all goes well, ‘awakens our tenderness’.

Especially in these harsh times, I find it quite difficult to stay ’tender’. Not towards children by the way, but simply for my environment. Difficult not to direct my grumble to the people around me for everything that is no longer allowed or possible. Not to yell at the heads on TV because of their short-sighted unequal reactions to the harsh measures. Not to fall out in a store when someone without a mouthpiece takes my place in the queue at the self-scan. I want to continue to see ‘what is’, in this context: also to feel compassion for all those people who see their last emergency plans for Christmas, the slightest glimmer of hope for more contact fallen out of their hands. I also want to acknowledge the frustration of corona protestants, no matter how much effort that takes me. And finally, to stay tender on myself, to acknowledge what a major impact this corona-crap has on myself.

The perspective jumps back and forth in this little poem: from ‘being yourself the child who looks and dares to trust in life’, to ‘being touched by those children’s eyes, making you soft again and looking with other, open eyes’.

The effect of light

The last line intrigues: …and not hate the light. Are there situations in which I too prefer darkness to light? Something on which light falls, cannot remain hidden.  What must remain hidden from me?


On a personal level I sometimes want to prevent my negative sides from becoming visible to others, or I don’t want to be confronted with those nasty traits myself. Maybe that is my vulnerability in some environments, or my tendency with a sharp tongue to strongly condemn the behavior of another person. In my time as an adolescent or student that would have been my shyness, my insecurity as a lanky skinny girl, to deviate from what seemed normal. By now I know: I am allowed to be there; I dare to show myself in full light! 


After all, this cover-up also concerns the social: light is also needed to bring to light dark things in our society: racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia/hate, homeless people having to sleep on the streets, the environment being ruined, refugees who may not be rescued at sea, misconduct by tax officials, students being intimidated, you name it! But once I know that something is going on in society, I feel co-responsible for doing something about it: I can no longer not-know something. And I do not always feel like that responsibility. Then I’d rather sit by my illuminated Christmas tree in my safe house. Then I prefer not to have so much light. And I also need tenderness for myself not to feel the whole world on my neck.


So light helps me to see where I am, how I am, how others are doing. And above all: which way I can go (although that is physically very limited for the time being). A child appeals to my tenderness and helps me to look at others that way too. In this way I dare to go full of hope towards the light of Christmas!

Watch Riekje’s Column in Dutch on youtube:

Listen to this song:

Your word is a lamp for my foot, a light on my path. (Psalms 119: 105)

Jesus said to the crowd: ‘You don’t light a lamp to put it under a bushel or some kind of big bucket. No, you put it on a stand. Everything that is hidden must be made public, and everything that is secret must come to light. He who has ears to hear must listen carefully!’ (Mark 4:21-23)