Inner Growth as “Shedding Shells”

The last time, at the winter solstice, we spoke of light and darkness. While light usually is treated as more positive than darkness, the two are in fact inseparable and one emerges from the other. It is the dark night that allows us to see the light of the stars. The song, Anthem, by Leonard Cohen and the story, The Friendly Giant, by Oscar Wilde, speak of the cracks in the walls around us and, in fact, in everything, as places where the light of new life gets in.

These thoughts call to mind the issues of openness to grow and develop, the willingness to move beyond our present levels and ways of seeing, feeling, and caring. It is like noticing these are like an old coat that no longer fits and needs to be let go of. It is like leaving the home of familiar ways and venturing into the realm of new thoughts, feelings, and attitudes.

I once heard someone describe how a particular kind of crab periodically grew too large for its shell, and returned to the ocean where it shed that shell and took 24 hours to grow a new one. During that it remained quite vulnerable. The speaker then commented that life was a process of shedding shells, in which there are times of transition during which we may be quite vulnerable.

This can be a process of coming to see life in a new light. It may be a change in the angle of vision or horizon through which we see things. A problem that bothers us, for example, may look different in the middle of a sleepless night and in a conversation over lunch with a trusted friend. At the same time, we may be reluctant to let go of a way of looking at life that seemed to give a certain security in order to become open to new possibilities that may move us in an uncertain direction.

A good illustration is the story, All the Years of Her Life by the late Canadian writer, Morley Callaghan, In this story, a young man has been irresponsibly relying upon in his mother to rescue him from any difficult situation. As she helps him be extricated from another incident, he begins to see her in the new light, which includes a vulnerability he had not noticed before. He recognizes his own failures, and finally approaches a level of maturity. The story concludes: “He watched his mother, and he never spoke, but at that moment his youth seemed to be over. … It seemed to him that this was the first he had ever looked upon his mother.”

Sometimes we may glimpse someone in their vulnerability or someone may catch a dim glance of our vulnerability. It is then perhaps that we experience a call to acknowledge each other in our uniqueness and respect our sacred worth. I recall an experience many years ago when I caught sight of someone’s fragility when, as it seemed it was not intended. It was as if catching sight of something through the back door, and left a sense of uneasiness blended with a need to respect that person. The whole issue of trust arises here, which may be the topic for another reflection

A similar theme of openness to new light out of darkness can be found in the story of Snow White, as it appears in the Grimm Brothers version. It begins with a queen who longs for a child that is as white as snow, as black as the ebony window frame and as red as the blood that fell on the snow from a pricking her finger. In this instance, the colours black and white express the totality of light and darkness, the totality of feelings that are found in a person. The red stands for the powerful feelings, specifically the self-giving love of the one queen and the destructive hatred of the other queen. As she matures, the child is faced with a choice between the two reds, the choice between a life grounded in love and a life rooted in hatred. In tasting the red part of the apple offered to her, Snow White experiences all of the red feelings of life. This is a death and rebirth experience, and the awakening occurs through the receiving and giving of love.

A similar choice is echoed in the story of The Two Wolves, in which the child tells the grandfather of the struggle within himself between the wolf of love and the wolf of haste, and asks which one will win. The grandfather replies simply: “the one you feed.” In other words, we do experience contradictory feelings and tendencies within ourselves. Yet we can move in the direction of choosing to nourish our capacity to love, to bring to life and foster growth. Or we can feed our tendency to hatred which pushes us in the direction of domination and destruction.

What emerges from the above materials is that all of us experience the whole range of feelings and possibilities, and that we are drawn or pushed in different directions. To move in one direction or another will inevitably involve a struggle and be a gradual process. To move in a direction of love is to move towards an acknowledgment of the sacred worth of self and others and to try, however haltingly, to follow that direction. At the same time it will involve a struggle with our fears and hostilities in which we acknowledge their reality, but attempt not to unleash them on self or others. It will likewise involve a struggle with our own and others, sense of worth.

May your experience of shedding the shells of feelings, thoughts, and attitudes that no longer fit, give rise, despite our felt vulnerability, to a new and fuller life within us and around us.

Norman King, January 02, 2021