Embracing the Shadow
Photo by Christer Rønning Austad
It’s amazing how easily one can fall back into old (unhelpful) ways. Writing feels drab, and Living Unglossed's excitement is less electric and has moved to the daily chores. The first month and a half were so thrilling, feeling that rush of inspiration and the joy of learning that people weren’t just reading my writings but were also connecting to them. The sheen is waning as life rolls on and the initial exhilaration has become intermittent sparks of enjoyment.
If ever there was a wonder that I follow feast or famine or think in black and white, this experience with the blog becoming just a part of every day would obliterate that. I can act like a balanced individual if need be, but my automatic desires are usually extreme. Writing and publishing for the public have further shown me that I don’t have balance down yet. I will stubbornly sit for hours—denying myself basic needs (food or the bathroom) to reach a state of completion and comfort. Once the denying of self is over, I luxuriate in too much. Too much lazing. Too much food. Too much drink. It’s no wonder that almost 12 years ago I had to go back to the denial of drinking because it had gotten to be another “too much”.
So, in trying to reach for this dream of writing and sharing with others and talking about the things that don’t come up when someone asks us “How are you?”, I’ve found that, yet again, I want it all---or nothing. On our very long adventure to get our COVID vaccine, J. and I were talking about what success means, especially focusing on the adage that humans’ greatest fears aren’t attributed to not being good enough but being too powerful. Neither J. nor I particularly love this saying and I don’t think either of us finds it inspirational but as we discussed where life has brought us to in middle age, I came to deeper insight. It’s not that I am afraid of my power or the opportunity to succeed. Maybe there was a time when this was true but with age (hopefully) comes a chance to care a bit less about drawing those boundaries and more desire to do as one pleases. I think what scares me is that I view success as black or white, feast or famine. There will either be no success and utter desolation, with nothing but hard work, or it will be a hedonist’s delight, with a muse whispering in my ear informing my every move.
My idea of success is so irrational and untenable that it keeps me from pursuing new things (at times) or from finding places in my life that might be considered a win. I imagine success as being the bright shiny winner and everything else is losing. How would anyone want to pursue anything new---especially with the supposed wisdom that should come with age—if you knew you wouldn’t be one of the best or be able to do it easily? Redefining success to include learning and honing –with all its stops and starts is terrifying and anxiety-producing. My reaction is always split---I hate to muddle through the messy process but at the same time, I long for the ambiguity and want to accept that this tangled gray area is part of the success---not some golden final win.
The issue with a shiny success is that it’s the false promise of finality---that you have arrived. But, life’s journey isn’t so much about arrivals (unless you are fixated on the final arrival—death). Instead, it’s the starts and stops, wins and misses in between. I won’t wax too poetic about the journey of life but constantly checking to see if you’ve arrived means missing the messy and exhilarating and mundane along the way (i.e. the main chunk of a life).
So, we learn to live in the in-between. We accept that nothing will be just right and that there will never be an ultimate winner (and those that strive for that are chasing illusions that will be of cold comfort when the bottom drops or the end is near---which, as part of our humanness, will inevitably happen). T.S. Eliot explains that
“Between the idea /And the reality/ Between the motion/ And the act/ Lies the shadow”.
To be human is to live in the dusky middle. When we are lucky, we will get glimpses of something bigger and something glimmering but that can never be our final place in this life. Inevitably, things will unravel (or at the very least, be tedious) so we would do well to recognize beauty in the mundane and even in pain. Our success at living isn’t a golden crown but learning, however slowly for some of us, to endure and delight in the shadow.