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  • Writer's pictureLelia

Anam Cara, the Unlived Life and Shadows

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

I’m trying to reread Anam Cara, and I can’t stomach the pollyanna sunshine spiritual message. O’Donohue writes, “Light is the secret presence of the divine…The soul awakens and lives in light.”

Surely the divine is in the darkness, too? Surely dark nights of the soul can lead to awakening? Why are we pretending only the good things hold divinity?

In The Fruitful Darkness, Joan Halifax writes,

“The most important secrets seem always to hide in the shadows. ‘The secret of life,’ say the Utes, ‘is in the shadows and not in the open sun; to see anything at all, you must look deeply into the shadow of a living thing.’”

Shadows, my favorite poem by D.H. Lawrence, speaks of the divinity that accompanies even the darkest moments.

“And if, as weeks go round, in the dark of the moon

my spirit darkens and goes out, and soft strange gloom

pervades my movements and my thoughts and words

then shall I know that I am walking still

with God, we are close together now the moon's in shadow.”

In Anam Cara, John O’Donohue writes of the death of a young mother: “She was a woman who had never harmed anyone. She always helped everyone.”

God bless her goodness and, at the same time, holy moly! She must have been exhausted by her good works. Always helped everyone? Never harmed anyone?

Gabor Maté might suggest that this young mother would have been well-served by setting boundaries and learning to say no. Maté writes, “In important areas of their lives, almost none of my patients with serious disease had ever learned to say no… underlying emotional repression was an ever-present factor.”

Yet O’Donohue speaks of the woman’s death as uplifting and transfiguring:

“It showed me that if you live in this world with kindness, if you do not add to other people’s burdens, but if you try to serve love, when the time comes for you to make the journey, you will receive a serenity, peace, and a welcoming freedom that will enable you to go to the other world with great elegance, grace and acceptance.”

This seems like a bald-faced lie. There are good people who die horrifying deaths and bad people who die peacefully in their beds. And since most of us are a mixture of good and bad, what kind of death are we promised? I assume he really means a state of grace and elegance of soul, but for most of us this would require time to prepare. A time to gnash our teeth and have regrets and come to terms with what we’re going to miss once we’re gone. A time to face our fear. Not everyone gets prep time.

And is it completely possible to avoid adding to other people’s burdens, as this young mother apparently did? It seems to me that this would require a life-denying level of carefulness.

I find it absolutely stunning that a thoughtful man could write so glibly about the incredible complexity of spirituality, goodness, life and death.

In his Foreword to The Fruitful Darkness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes,

“Beauty can be found in birth and also in dying. If we know how to live, we will also know how to die. Living in beauty means dying in beauty.”

Somehow Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement makes me think of a rich and fully-lived life; life that doesn’t exclude death and doesn’t narrowly define goodness. Like Janie at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God:

"She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see."

The selfless young mother’s story, on the other hand, makes me think of life held in check, shaped to others' needs. Maybe this says more about me than her. She may have been completely fulfilled.

But, for now, I love George Emerson’s thoughts on goodness and living: “We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, and it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows. Choose a place where you won’t do harm—yes, choose a place where you won’t do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.”

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