Love in the Shadow

Nov 1, 2019 | Shared thoughts

Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash

Come home to wholeness.

As a young child, I was by nature drawn to connection with those around me. In fact, in my early development I was dependent on their acceptance, recognition and affection. I had no fear that these were contingent, no worry that my love would go unanswered.

Then, life happened, and I learned from my experience. Bear in mind that I was raised in a safe, healthy, loving, stable household like many children can only dream of. Still, my experiential learning in those early days included shocking, life-changing lessons.

It taught me that behaving in certain ways, displaying particular emotions, saying the wrong thing meant that one or more of those on whose love I depended rejected me, failed to see me as I was, withheld (even for the briefest moment) their precious affection. Behaving in other ways won these most desired prizes in special measure.

As a vulnerable little thing, I learned that I was not safe but was at risk of chronic misunderstanding, rejection and abandonment. As a charitably minded little thing, I knew that these precious, loving people around me would not do this without good reason. As an adaptive, capable little thing, I learned that while in some ways I was good, there was something fundamentally wrong with me. It became clear that I was unworthy of the very thing for which I most yearned, love.

One term for this package of good things of which I was incapable or undeserving and bad things that I’d identified as the sources of my undeservingness is the shadow. In my simple mind, I think of it as: Me (the big, whole masterpiece that I am) minus this shadow equals me (the limited, ‘acceptable’ bit of Me that seems to stand a better chance of being loved and a lesser chance of being abandoned).

The whole process of splitting (self-abandonment) that I’ve awkwardly summarised was the right thing for me to do at the time, given the capabilities I had as a young child. It was not a mistake or a crime.

My best guess is that everything I’ve said above applies no more to me than it does to everyone else alive, although the specifics of what one shunts away into shadow differs by culture and by individual. Well, I guess everything above except that I was lucky enough to be in a peaceful, stable, loving household. Too many (and one is too many) children did not have that good fortune.

Nor were the activities of the loving circle of people around me, their behaviour that preceded my splitting myself in this way, cosmic fuck ups. Those behaviours were simply adults carrying out the process that I’ll now describe for my adult self. They were acting from a standpoint of their ‘me’ rather than their ‘Me’. But as I’ll discuss a bit further, the shadow — theirs, mine and yours — is part of the world, part of reality, and it WILL always find its way into the light of day, no matter how much we seek to sequester it in the dungeon.

As an adult, I now possess, although for much of my life I did not recognise it, a richer set of capabilities for relating to the world than my young child self did. Not recognising this, however, I’ve spent decades relying on the once-appropriate child’s toolbox anytime the splinters of me that that child hid away pop up to present themselves. These visits by members of the shadow community can appear as ‘internal’ experiences or as my filtering and interpretation of ‘external experiences’, including the words and actions of other people.

My replaying of the child’s solution results in my turning / running from these visitors. This doesn’t make me a bad person, and there is no reason for me to beat myself up about it.

But one might ask, why are these splinters visiting? Their visit is a necessity. They are part of reality, part of Me. As a child grasping for solutions, I tried to tuck them away as if they didn’t exist, but that didn’t change reality. Reality and the big Me are too magnificent to be bottled in such a way. These splinters know all too well that they are part of Me. Their recognition of their unity with me, coupled with their inescapable longing to rejoin me to re-organise as Me, is Love.

Yet, the visits are always uncomfortable for me. This discomfort tends to be the trigger that activates my ‘autoplay’ of the childhood strategy of avoidance. So what am I to do? What is one to do? Well, there are whole books about that.

My short oversimplification is that I can use those very same triggers, my noticing of sensations of discomfort in my own body, as signals to alert me to an alternative response. The good news is that, in one sense, there is nothing I have to do in lieu of my habituated avoidance response. The invitation that these signals issue is to sit with and hold, in a gentle, loving, non-judging way, those visitors, not seeking to do anything with them. I do this by sitting with the physical discomfort that announces and constitutes them — only for as long as I can. It may be just a few seconds at first.

These few seconds of sitting with and holding the discomfort of these visits from the shadow allow me to see that they don’t constitute an existential threat to me. I can survive them. Bit by bit, slowly, patiently, gently over weeks, months and years, I can welcome and re-integrate more and more of the historical visitors back into Me. At some point, it becomes apparent that these visitors were never outside of Me; it was only me who thought so. These visitors are part of life, and I love Matt Licata’s quote:

Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.

This doesn’t culminate in a finish line, beyond which all is rosy and smooth. We don’t purchase or earn exemption from the tough side of life. We don’t buy certainty. Life remains mystery. Reality includes all opposites. Even once all historical visitors have been welcomed home, reality will send us guests. A life lived with the gentle, loving openness I’ve described isn’t one in which reality filters out the unwanted guests for us. It is one in which we are increasingly able to welcome all guests, even the ones who bear discomfort and seeming threat in their arms.

And perhaps, in time, it becomes clear that this reality that sends the guests and this Me who welcomes them are the same undivided whole. And that recognition of wholeness, too, is Love.

I am indebted to Matt Licata’s The Path is Everywhere.

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