By John English
In the book, Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the main character’s father reveals to his son the secret that destroyed the parents’ marriage and brought about the father’s self-isolation and estrangement from his son. When father and son finally reconcile, the father says, “Listen to me. Open your eyes in the dark and recollect your blessings. Don’t fear the dark places in your mind, otherwise, rage will blacken your sight.”
This passage reminded me of the parts of myself that I have found unacceptable and have tried to push away - anger, guilt, aspects of my sexuality, feelings of shame. These dark thoughts and feelings, many of which have been with me since childhood, make up my “shadow” self. Usually I am not consciously aware of my shadow, but inevitably some kind of trigger –an argument or a perceived slight or judgment - will activate these dark emotions, and I will think, “Ah, there you are, Shame. I’d forgotten about you.” I realize that what I have tried to ignore is still there, reminding me of how unacceptable I am.
I also project these dark thoughts on others as a means of avoiding them myself. It is much easier to identify and judge the unacceptable in others than to deal directly with the same characteristics in myself. The risk of bringing my shadow into the light is too great a burden for my ego to bear. I may be rejected by others, or I will feel that I am a “fake”, that I am not the person I try to present to the world.
Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” (Carl Jung, Psychology and religion: west and east, 1940) To hide these parts of my humanity results in anxiety, pain, and neurosis. The energy required to push aside, reject and abandon the shadow is exhausting and counter-productive. To acknowledge its presence is to be able to name the dark corners and dismantle their power over me. If I am to fully accept and love myself, I must fully accept my WHOLE self, including my shadow.
As Gurnah suggests, counting one’s blessings is part of the practice of accepting the shadow. I try to be grateful for what lessons my shadow may be trying to teach me. Recognizing shame is the first step in trying to address long-held, false beliefs about myself. Acknowledging anger helps me realize that sometimes anger is an appropriate response to injustice. Awareness of guilt helps me avoid ethical errors that may harm myself or those I love. I seek, always, to balance the shadow with a sense of gratitude for all that I have, and all that I am.