Sunday, December 6, 2015

A month of gifts, day 6: The Gift of Shadow

This week, I talked some with a friend of mine about our shadow lives, the things we hide out of shame or fear, the things we feel make us unlovable and unworthy. It’s easy to forget sometimes that everyone has these shadow aspects. Sometimes we suppress them, sometimes we do battle with them, but either way, they shape us.

I think it’s not a coincidence that in folklore, one of the ways we can discern terrible creatures like vampires is by their lack of shadows and reflections. In this, to lack a shadow is to be wholly given over to evil. Yet how often do we try to outrun that shadow-self, hoping that if we can just put enough distance between us, we will somehow become perfect, or at least good enough?

It’s natural to fear the shadow. After all, society is designed in large part to keep the worst of human nature in check, constantly reminding us that taking or doing what we want without thought can lead to the most awful consequences. It’s good to have that order to keep us civilized . . . but at the same time, going too long without addressing those shadow places in ourselves leaves us broken and fearful. It’s not just a matter of crushing them, either. We will never be free of the shadow, so unless you want to become some sort of monster, you have to set a place for it at the table in your heart, and find out what it wants and why it’s taken up habitation in you.

The thing is, I think we need that shadow. Need it desperately, sometimes, a life-or-death yearning, a way of knowing what’s missing in our lives and where our deepest longings are pointing. The shadow can be a map, a guide, and a solace—but only if we can see it for what it is, not as a threat or a failure.

Angels come to us in the darkness. Without night, we would never see the stars and dream of something beyond this world.

I love the poetry of the Sufi mystic Hafiz, and this is part of the poem I read today, as translated by Daniel Ladinsky:

Most roots like something still and undisturbed
to grow in. There are always various aspects of
nature at play that parallel their parent—
metaphysical laws.

Sit down with a name of God on your tongue,
or let your spirit arms reach within and embrace
something sacred there; you might begin to shine.

All that lives in shadows, all names and forms,
will then run from—or bow to—the king of the
jungle . . . your soul, your soul.

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