Each time we endure and survive a difficult time, be it mental, emotional or physical, we learn to a deeper level exactly how much the dross and periphery of living has taken up our time and energy up to that point.
Each time we come through, we can see more clearly what our true self looks like, feels like, wants, understands and believes. And each time, we may realize we are faced with losing something of these, and it will needs be by choice. Is it an inauthentic aspect of self? Is it repeating situation or relationships, or a habit that results in emotional turmoil or drama you’ve simply had enough of? Desires that no longer interest us, which turned out to be distractions from our path? Or beliefs which turned out to be for beliefs sake?
Shadow experiences ask us to shed inauthentic or superfluous aspects of ourselves, perhaps taken up to impress others, to belong, to be left alone, to stay safe, to be saved from sin, to avoid our own thoughts, to avoid death.
When I had cancer, I railed against anyone who implied I’d become a better person because of it. The very idea I might have been presented an opportunity to evolve spiritually by a higher power via cancer understandably pissed me right off. In fact, for me, experiencing a life-threatening illness reinforced exactly how arbitrary these things are. I will never forget what I saw – and who I met – along my cancer journey, and the people I know who live with it now.
Living with shadow, doing the work it presents to us, committing acts of intentional survivorship, creates a breadcrumb trail of courage and hope we can backtrack on when shadows descend again, as they inevitably do. Avoiding shadow times is pointless, denying them, a farce. We will be asked to walk beside the things we fear most many times in our lives. Many of those things we will come to see are not to be battled, resisted or fought against, but treated with compassion. When be we sit with our shadows, no matter how distasteful or terrifying, we see clearly our fears and flaws are made of us, and deserve not our disdain, but our deepest love and healing.
If you stumble often into shadow, as I do, I would have you consider your shadow is also your refuge. Be close to your self in these times, and don’t hold yourself in judgement because you feel weak or vulnerable, or like a failure. Shame will come, but shame is a trained reflex, and not our natural response to finding a soul faced with pain and suffering. That response is quiet. Accepting. Warmth. Peace. Gentleness.
When I was in the cancer ward, the man in the bed opposite me asked his doctors to stop his treatment. He was elderly, infirm, obviously seriously ill and dying. I panicked, and despite the fact I too was seriously ill and in a cancer ward, felt compelled to find a way to get out of bed and speak to the man and make sure he had made peace with god so he could go to the afterlife I imagined for him. It ripped me up inside for days, because I knew I could not do this thing my “faith” and my fear compelled me to, which I mistook for love, but which was actually fear. I remember crying silently in the shower for ages hating myself for being so useless in that man’s time of spiritual need. But as I later realized, his spiritual need was all in my head. The fear and doom I sensed around his situation belonged to me. I was having a spiritual crisis, not him. I, unlike him, had not faced the reality of being a sick person unto death. I did not know how to be helpless, how to rest, how to surrender, to begin the process of healing. But I did come to learn these things. I learned a lesson there and then about the difference between fear and love.
My surviving cancer and treatment taught me death was close, but was not the enemy, and is to be treated with respect and not fear. I learned I can be alone, and that being surrounded by people can be the loneliest experience. I lived side by side with dying people for two months, while we all shared the shadow, and found such sadness in that place I thought I’d never recover from the grief of it. The best and the worst of people. And I’ll never forget it. It was beautiful. There was no fear there. Most were beyond that, or gathering breadcrumbs back to those things they understood to represent light, and love.
Each time we go through, survive, endure, let go a little more, surrender a little more, have our beliefs or our body or mind broken a little more, something comes away from us that once was part of us. We can grasp it back and cling to it in denial, therefore to carry it forward, unhealed and growing ever heavier until it breaks us again. We can recognize the broken piece as something perhaps that was never part of us at all, and let it go. Perhaps we will hold the broken fragment away from us at arms length, see it for what it is, and then tend to it, deliberately and diligently undertaking the patient process of healing. When experiences happen through you and not to you, it changes everything.
(C) Jo Hilder