I have recently, and probably temporarily, graduated from therapy. When I began two years ago, I recounted my depression struggles: the run-of-the-mill kind, the seasonal kind, the clinical kind and the post-partum kind. My therapist listened patiently while I told her my strategies of keeping the darkness at bay: my sleeping and exercise routine, my commitments to healthy eating and regular community. I confessed that although I teetered since stopping medication, I had found a way to stand on the edge of the canyon of depression without falling in.
My therapist let me finish and then shrugged knowingly saying, “Well, you knowwhat Jung would say about it”, and at that point I clamped my mouth shut. Ah, yes. Jung. Carl? My therapist often refers to me as a peer rather than a client. Since we obtained the same degree she assumes that I have retained the same information she has. She does not know that over the last decade and a half all of my essential marriage and family training has seeped from my brain and been replaced by episodes of Paw Patrol. Because I do not get out much, my starved ego is easily enticed by a professional treating me like a peer. This is one of many times where I will nod along knowingly. Carl Jung. Obviously! Yes, I know him. Please. Go on.
“He would say that you are struggling against your shadow side, and that you must learn to integrate it into your life.” Hmmm. I tapped my chin. Yes, excellent point. I side-stepped that landmine of conversation until I could go home and dig through dusty bins in my garage for my old psychology books. Flipping through pages it came back to me in bits; “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
Generally, we understand our shadow side to represent negative or repressed emotions. The ones we all have but don’t want other people to know we have: anger, fear, resentment, shame. The Canyon of Depression. I thought about my own shadows, how I walk away from them but they keep following me around no matter how many things I pack into a day, and no matter how efficiently I do them. It was as if a spotlight had been turned on, and in its glare, my shadow’s edges sharpened. With clarity, I watched it cling to me wherever I went, turning with my decisions, speeding my heartrate, shaping my words. I felt keenly the amount of resistance I deployed to keep it from showing, tucking it firmly behind me in place. I began to worry that Jung was right and that my shadow was only growing stronger, stewed in waiting.
I wondered what it meant in 1 John, that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all. What does it mean for me, a child called to live in the love-light of God, to integrate darkness into my life? I realized my resistance was partially tied to messages ingested from other Christians about the nature of darkness itself: that it is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst. Trade in those negative thoughts for positive ones! There’s a corresponding verse for each one! But under the spotlight, my shadow seemed less a barnacle to scrape off and more an attached appendage. And to deny it was to cut off a limb, becoming a willing accomplice in my own disability.
Also- I know better. I know darkness is the environment where God has historically done some of His best work in my life. Jesus liked to prove it to people so He talked all the time about growth, branches, fruits and the genesis of them all: seeds. He reminded His listeners over and over that the soil is what counts. Unless a seed can burrow into the fertile, black underground- nothing good can grow. This is Jesus’ way, to fashion beautiful things in the dark for the purpose of bringing them into the light.
This year has been a good one to begin the practice of facing my shadows. My beloved mother-in-law is dying of terminal cancer and there is not a single thing I can do about it. My shadow has the upper hand, it hunches over me as I hunch over her: distended, suffering, moaning in a hospital bed. I can no more rip it off my back than I can pry myself away from her. This shadow I cannot turn away from, compartmentalize into neat, safe shapes, or attempt to outrun. This shadow keeps perfect pace and the only way forward seems through- to open up my arms and embrace it.
Yesterday, I sat on the edge of her hospital bed. The room was full of shadows and the beeping, rhythmic whir of her oxygen machine. Less than a month ago, I took her on one last adventure to Mongolia. Trying to manage her wheelchair and luggage I nicked her hand, the paper-thin skin tore instantly, dark magenta oozing out. The wound, now dark and purple, hasn’t even had time to heal. It wasn’t that long ago. It wasn’t that long ago that I fed her that piece of watermelon because the beans were too spicy and her face screwed up in laughter and mock-pain. It wasn’t that long ago- and I finger the mark that proves it. With my other hand, I turned to psalm 139. “Even the darkness is not dark to you”. I spoke into a room packed shoulder-to-shoulder with shadows: fear, anger, sadness, distress, pain, suffering. The corner of her mouth turned up, knowing these words by heart, knowing what I was doing; her smile a flash of beauty tucked inside the shadow of grief. I see you, I thought, inviting the beauty closer, even knowing grief kept pace behind. She gripped my hand and we faced them together. “If I go down to the depths, You are there” I continued, reciting ancient imagery meant to convey the epitome of darkness. “Even in Sheol,” I almost whispered, “You are there. Your right hand holds me fast.”