We all have parts of ourselves that we would rather hide from other people. The closer someone gets, though, the more likely it is that they see our shadow. Isn’t it more honest to show our shadow upfront?
A while ago I heard the story of a guy who tried some of the most popular dating sites with terrible results. In one occasion, he and a woman found each other in dating website and struck a friendship chatting online. Fun and warm conversations led to an actual date. His hopes were high but the date ended in disappointment when his date backed off the moment she saw his bald spot, invisible in his profile pictures.
Brokenhearted, the guy focused on the ignominy of the lack of hair in a particular spot on his head and all the dates it would ruin. He looked at the online profiles of other men and none of them showed a bald spot. Instead, they all had big smiles and, according to their profiles, they were cheery, fun, generous men whose favorite part of the day was when they had the chance to help other people.
Looking at the profiles of people he, as a straight guy, was not interested in, was like looking at the people you meet at a bar, but sober and in full daylight. Everything in their profiles was partially true–as in 5% true. Right then, the solution to everyone’s online dating disappointments came to him–a dating website where people were encouraged to show their ugly, their bald spots, from the get-go. No one would walk out on him again.
The website was a success until its novelty wore off and the status quo crept back in.
To disclose or not to disclose, there isn’t a right answer. I would argue that that’s not even the right question. People carry with them complex stories that we won’t understand until we get close, until we show up with empathy and love.
One of my top 3 favorite novels of all times is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. It is a gripping work of beauty, the product of a great artist, a joy to read. I knew nothing about the book before I started reading it, I’m not even sure why I borrowed it from the library. In Spanish, the word envolver means to involve and to envelope. The book involved me and enveloped me. Little by little I fell in love with the beauty of its bright side and the beauty of its shadow.
Knowing upfront how dark the shadow of The God Small Things is would not have helped at all. Taking the shadow out of context would have given me a distorted view of the story before I had the opportunity to really know it. It wasn’t that I had invested too much in the story to stop reading the book once its brutality became apparent. Instead, I realized at some moment that the heavy and dark moments of the story belonged in there. Even more than that, there was no story without them.
I don’t have a bald spot now, but what about ten years from now? Twenty? What about the unknown unknowns? The meltdown when I got laid off, the time my wife had to take me to the hospital, the crises of faith.
The shadow doesn’t define us, and yet it is an important part of who we are. When we think about hiding it or not, we’re making the mistake of isolating it from the rest of us. Seeing the shadow in the context of who we are as a whole places it in the right context. Just because we or others can’t accept parts of who we are doesn’t mean that they are unacceptable.
Instead of focusing on bald spots and scars, yours or mine, let’s show up to life with vulnerability. Let’s get to know each other as human beings, accepting our own shadows and each other’s shadows. It’s one way to heal our society.