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Calm • Serenity

The Wisdom of Dusk

Our thoughts are – nominally – free to go in any direction at any time of day or night. In practice, perhaps far more than we dare to admit, they remain tightly tied to wherever we happen to be on the Earth’s twenty-four-hour axial journey around the Sun. There are ideas which make most sense to us at daybreak, others which have to wait for high noon and others that require the night to convince us.

There can be no more resonant span in this rotation than the interval we know as dusk, when the sun slips below the horizon and throws its beams across the lower atmosphere, rendering the sky – for up to forty minutes in the northern latitudes, and as little as twenty minutes in the equatorial ones – neither quite light nor quite dark.

Dusk fascinated the Norwegian artist Harald Sohlberg, who painted it dozens of times in locations around his native Oslo – not only because he found it ‘beautiful’, but in order to focus our attention on the transformations this time of day can perform for us psychologically. There might be many sorts of dusks around the world, but what they whisper to us tends to be very similar.

Harald Sohlberg, Spring Evening, Akershus, 1913

Throughout daylight hours, we are invited to be purposeful. Our horizons are limited to the human world. The shadows are short and our perspectives can grow so too. We push our miniscule part of history forward a few more millimetres: we send emails, call for meetings, attend a conference, write a paper. With the sun high in our meridian, we grow tall in our own estimations. We make plans, we accuse someone of disrespecting us, we get frustrated with our progress.

But then comes dusk with its range of contrary messages. A narrow band of cloud many miles away turns a brilliant crimson. Distances we had forgotten about make themselves felt. We are no longer the measure of all things. Whatever has agitated us recedes in importance. The moment bids us to loosen our mind’s fervent hold on the memory of the missing document or the course of the tetchy meeting; for the first time in many hours, we know viscerally that these things, too, will pass.

Dusk invites all of us – the desperate, the anxious and the arrogant – into the shelter of night, where grown-up priorities can weigh less heavily on us. There is nothing more we can do to alter anything now; we will have to wait and keep faith. We must stop grandstanding. And for a few especially pained ones among us, dusk is there to confirm that it might all be OK, despite the hatred, the shame and the ignominy.

The miraculous thing about every day – often missed by people who are extremely busy, content or conceited – is that it will inevitably end. However dreadful it has been, and some days are mightily so, it will reach a close. And all the things that draw their seriousness from the height of the sun will be dimmed by the approach of night.

How unbalanced we would be if – by some technological innovation – we managed to banish night altogether. Dusk saves us through erasure. Without dusk, there would be no more recalibration and no time for our arrogance to abate nor for our anxiety to be absorbed. We can be grateful that, despite all our gadgets and our pride, the wisdom of dusk is only ever a few hours away.

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