Integrating Shadow and Light

Shadow, Italywise

The Unity of Shadow and Light © 2017 Jed Smith

I am continually amazed at how art is my most powerful teacher, cleverly bypassing my bossy thinking mind and presenting me with important “aha” moments. This week, my art reached out and spoke to me about the importance of embracing my shadow. Sound ominous? Read on.

This morning, as I sat down to write, I had absolutely no idea what to write about.

Often times I have topics and ideas queueing up for attention. Not so today. It was another one of those “Crap, my creative tank is empty” moments when my orderly and linear right brain seeks to convince me I have to hunker down and mentally muscle my way through meeting a self-imposed deadline. Thankfully, I believe that big, fat lie less and less. So, I went to my photography vaults and started cruising through images to see if something would speak to me. You know, like going fishing and seeing if anything will bite. Today I got more than a nibble.

Quit running from your shadow

That’s what this photo said to me. I vaguely remember taking this photo a few years ago when we temporarily kept an apartment in Rome. It was taken in one my favorite spots in the city, Piazza della Minerva, just around the corner from The Pantheon. While the memory is hazy, I do recall being struck by the contrast and intersection of shadow and light, almost like puzzle pieces that fit together masterfully to make a beautiful whole. For three years this photo remained hidden from my view––until today, when the message was received loud and clear.

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.” – Carl Gustav Jung

Now for a little context to help you understand why this message is so timely. I’ve recently returned from a long overseas journey, one that crossed twelve time zones. I’ve learned from my experience with jet lag that my disturbed sleep cycles and upended circadian rhythms stir up my neuroses and the darkness of my shadow. Even though I know this about myself, I run from the messiness (runaway worries and thinking) and end up in a cycle of futility trying to think my way back to the light and to feeling good. In other words, I soundly reject my shadow, which means I stay mired in a wrestling match with it.

Acceptance and surrender to the complexity of one’s psyche

Somewhere along the line, I was taught to banish dark feelings and unhappy occurrences. A Southern Baptist upbringing convinced me of my grubby little sin-filled soul, and society jumped right in condition me to push away the “bad” stuff while running from my shadow. The last thing society teaches us is to accept and integrate the yin and yang of our beings.

So, after a few nights of waking up at the most inopportune times and trying unsuccessfully to catapult myself into happy-land, I realized, yet again, the importance and power of allowing “what is” to simply be as it is. Don’t fight. Be curious. And know the shadow is a part of a beautiful whole.

Without the shadow, the photo above wouldn’t have power and beauty. As a photographer and painter, I know many of my best pieces come from the play of shadow and light. And herein is the lesson in life for me.

As a result of upending the status quo by moving to Italy I’ve been confronted multiple times by my shadow. It just happens with big life changes. But, if a person feels like a failure when confronted by their shadow, and runs, I believe they’re missing a huge opportunity to see a brilliance in the whole of one’s being. For me, a photo became a timely reminder of this lesson in my own life.

“To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.” – Carl Gustav Jung