AA’s Fourth Step and Shadow

My Friday morning book study recently read Robert Johnson’s Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche.  Following Carl Jung, Johnson (1993:4) defines the shadow as ” . . . that part of us we fail to see or know.”   One of the study group members commented that their experience with AA and the 12 Steps fit well with Johnson’s notion.  The member noted how fortunate he was to have the 12 Steps as a guiding principal not just in recovery, but in his total life.  His comment got me to thinking of that overwhelming truth.

The Fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” is precisely the introspection that can lead to owning our shadow selves.  The Tenth Step “Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it” allows continuing that process on a regular basis.

I recall my early days in recovery and the struggle to accept responsibility for the events in my life, in large part based on a refusal to examine and claim my shadow self.  For example, much of my life was governed by an uncontrollable anger at people, places, and things, but in the throws of my addiction, I refused to examine my part in those resentments.  I had a shopping list of people and actions to readily blame.  However, the Fourth Step began the process of understanding my role in those situations.  Inevitably that led to an examination of my shadow I had failed to see or know.

In claiming the anger that governed much of my existence, I came to become more accountable.  Through the Serenity Prayer concepts of accepting what I cannot change, having the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, my anger transforms into a tool to live life on life’s terms.  Owning this anger is particularly helpful in today’s highly polarized blame game for social, political, and economic issues.  Instead of just pointing out the very real evils of the world today, I can examine my role in creating those evils.  I often find my role comes down to one of inaction and complacency as someone living a privileged social and economic existence.

I do not think claiming and owning one’s shadow means being a doormat or wearing sackcloth in a “woe is me” sort of way.

In The Book of Joy, written about the philosophies of The Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Douglas Adams writes (pp. 223-224):

Acceptance, it must be pointed out, is the opposite of resignation and defeat.  The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama are two of the most tireless activists for creating a better world for all of its inhabitants, but their activism comes from a deep acceptance of what is.  The Archbishop did not accept the inevitability of apartheid, but he did accept its reality.

Acceptance allows us to claim our shadows, as in the Alcoholics Anonymous Fourth Step, and begin to deal with life on life’s terms.


Acceptance in Addiction & Cancer

“And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.” p. 449 Alcoholics Anonymous

As a social/political activist since my freshman year in high school, when I first got sober, the concept of acceptance as articulated in the lines above was difficult for me to handle.  But the words of the Serenity Prayer brought a greater understanding to acceptance:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

I take this basically as a counter to my self-will run riot fueled by my righteous indignation, but with a call to action and responsibility to humanity, and through my experience, strength, and hope, to choose or not choose to act on any given point.

For the past few decades the serenity prayer application of acceptance has served me well in both addiction recovery and living a life aligned on a path toward true self.

With my cancer diagnosis, I have come to accept my increased pain, lack of appetite, and fatigue.  But at the same time, I have come appreciate that:

  • if I am diligent each day in doing the exercises as prescribed by my physical therapist, my level of pain is tremendously reduced.
  • if I do not load up on grease and empty carbs, my appetite is pretty close to normal
  • and if I live in harmony with the above two points, get a goods night sleep, and remember that regardless of cancer, I am 65 years old, my level of fatigue is kept in check.

In the same way that I long ago accepted that I was an alcoholic, today I accept that I have Stage 4 cancer.  When I first got sober, I filled with my head with the latest science on the disease concept of alcoholism, genetics, twin studies, and so forth.  Although interesting, none of that information has kept me sober or moving forward on a recovery path.  Today, I am considerably less interested in the science of my cancer diagnosis.  I accept the diagnosis and leave that to the oncology specialists – the thing I cannot change.  However, as in sobriety, I am taking a very active role in how I live my life today to maximize my quality and quantity of time left on this earth – the things I can change.  I am increasingly learning the difference between the two.