Meeting the Shadow

In Ursula Le Guin‘s stunningly beautiful novel ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’, the young wizard Ged unleashes a terrifying shadow into the world by mistake. Stunned by his power, he stands paralysed in shock while the shadow’s claws cut deep lines into his face before disappearing. From then on, he lives a haunted life, forever running from that dark alter-ego that threatens to engulf him.

It is only when Ged understands that running can take him no further, that it leads only to exhaustion and despair, that he has the courage to turn and face what is after all his and his alone. Instead of running from the shadow he becomes its hunter until the two meet face to face far beyond the edge of the known world. And through this he becomes the greatest wizard his people have known.

So it us with us. Born whole and shimmering into the world, we quickly learn that parts of us are not welcome in our families, communities and wider culture. It’s a necessary and painful transition as we push away what cannot be tolerated by others, and are left wounded, but acceptable in the eyes of those around us. What we’ve denied in ourselves becomes shadow, always present but mostly held out of sight – at least to us.

From then on, most of us flee the shadow, such are the strong feelings it evokes in us, choosing lives, work and identities that keep it far away. Typically we find ourselves cultivating one side of each of life’s opposites while the other side becomes alien and undesirable to us. And for a long time, this may serve us and those around us very well.

But, like Ged, in the end living a full and courageous life always involves facing that which we’ve pushed away, that which we took to be impossible for us, that which we judge, that which stirs up fear or shame.

Those of us who have lived only in calmness need to find out about rage.

Those who have lived to be seen as good must find out how to cause trouble.

Those who control must start to let things emerge.

Those who wait must learn to act, and who launch always into action must learn to wait.

Those who blame themselves must learn to cherish, and those who blame others must learn compassion.

Those who try to keep the whole world safe must risk, and those who risk everything find out about safety and solid ground.

Those who cannot but keep all the options open must find out how to commit.

Those who live only in the intellect must learn about love.

Only when, like Ged, we can embrace both sides of life’s great polarities, can we bring ourselves fully forward, bursting with life and with our greatest contribution yet to come.

Justin Wise is a faculty member at New Ventures West and founder of thirdspace coaching in London. You can read his daily reflections on living and working at