A Flame In A Dark Cave

Colin Walsh
460 words, 8K views, 9 comments


We are grateful to Rupali Bhuva for offering this hand-made painting for this reading.

It was just another day of that, when it happened. I don’t know why, but the teacher suddenly broke off what he was saying and considered us for a moment. A movement like a camera shutter happened behind his eyes. His gaze changed. He leaned against his desk, folded his arms, and then he went off script.

He spoke about how we were going to leave school soon, and head into the world, separately, for ever. He said we wouldn’t be able to grasp it yet, but our horizons were about to expand in ways we wouldn’t believe. I know it sounds cheesy – it probably was cheesy – but for the teenage me it was a revelation to hear an adult address us like this, not as kids to whom he needed to impart information, but as humans with whom he wanted to share something like wisdom.

What stayed with me was the image he used: he said our awareness would be like a flame in a dark cave. The brighter and larger the flame grew, the more of the cave we would see. But with every bit of illumination, there would come a growing awareness of the vastness of the cave, of just how little of it we were actually seeing, and of how much more space and opportunity was left for our flame to grow.

According to him, if we were living right, we’d keep growing brighter and more curious as time went by, always seeing more, but with the expanding humility of knowing that insight can’t be exhausted; that life isn’t about reaching firm conclusions anyway, but about opening yourself to the possibility that you might be wrong, that there’s always more to learn.

Our culture tends to fetishize youthful naivety, to pretend that life’s a linear movement from the open innocence of youth to jaded experience. But much of my adult life has been the very opposite: it’s been about being disabused of my own prejudices; my failures of empathy and imagination; pushing against the seductions of certainty and staying true to that idea of the flame in the cave.

It’s a lesson I repeatedly fall short of – almost every time I’ve done something wrong in my life, really hurt someone, said or done the worst thing – it’s been because in that moment I was oblivious to what was beyond my own narrow powers of sight. Every blundering stumble has – in ways often as painful as beautiful – been a feeding of that flame.


Colin Walsh is an author of short stories. He is from Galway and lives in Belgium. Excerpt above from his book, Kala.