Shadow Work, Brain Damage, Anger & Forgiveness
When I was 3 or 4 years old I started to realize that my brother was different… and always would be.
I can’t really describe how it felt at first, because I had to piece the whole story together over a few years of my childhood.
But I can tell you how it impacted my life… and kept me from being an effective champion for the environment – until recently.
On New Years Day of 2014 I posted a blog, 5 Resolutions for an Environmentalist, and one of my resolutions was doing more shadow work. Comments came in, thanking me for sharing. One such comment from my Sustainability Professionals LinkedIn group said she had never heard of “shadow work” and was excited to learn more.
I believe first-person stories are the best (and possibly only) means of impacting someone profoundly, so I thought I’d share a VERY personal one.
“Shadow work” is like the opposite of Strengths Finder. You could call it “Blind Spots Finder.”
As a metaphor, when the sun is shining you have a shadow cast on the ground beside you. Although the day is bright, and you can see perfectly, YOU are actually creating a dark shadow that limits your vision in a particular area. These dark spots, or blind spots, is what “shadow work” is all about.
It’s easy to do two things:
- Focus only on the positive, and
- Critique others around you.
But , if you want to grow and be capable of making a huge impact… you must learn to do two things:
- Occasionally reflect on the negative, and
- Critique yourself.
You must seek out and find your own fictional stories, biases, weaknesses, etc. – namely, the ones that are keeping you from accomplishing your goals.
Frontal lobe brain damage is no joke. And when it happened to my brother, I didn’t laugh.
I was 3. And I found out slowly that he wasn’t going to have a normal childhood – or life. Our family wasn’t, either.
That can happen when a small town hospital in Iowa hires an anesthesiologist from overseas with a forged license. And when they find out later that he was administering the same doses for every patient – for ever procedure.
Child, adult. Male, female. Weight, height. Surgery type. It did not matter. One size fits all.
But one size does not fit all. One size damaged my brother’s frontal lobe tissue.
One size stunted his ability to learn, communicate, understand his own emotions, and develop the behaviors to safely care for himself in this lifetime.
One size stole from my brother. He will never live on his own, express how he’s really feeling and why, fall in love, or have children. And that broke my heart.
It also made me incredibly angry.
When that small town, struggling hospital found out they hired a non-licensed anesthesiologist that hurt people under their care, they didn’t take the high road.
In our case, they took the lie-about-it-and-destroy-the-evidence road.
And when our struggling, small town family found out about the hospital’s negligence years later… my parents could not afford the legal battle necessary to hold those responsible accountable.
I was angry.
Throughout my adolescence, teens, and early twenties, every time my brother had a bad day (and there were many), it felt like he was back in that hospital being taken advantage of again and again.
Anger might be putting it mildly. Rage is probably a better description.
Rage that an institution we were supposed to trust the most – a hospital – to take care of us, and fix us when we’re sick, had actually hurt my brother, and did untold damage that was irreversible.
And they were not be held accountable.
The non-licensed anesthesiologist fled the country. He took his 2 children and abandoned his wife, never to be heard from again.
The hospital destroyed the doctor’s notes. And our family was be left to figure out how to adjust and survive without assistance.
Yes, I was angry.
The problem with anger is that it hurts those who hold onto it, not the other way around. And it’s not always grounded in truth – at least, not the whole truth.
My anger was focused on a very limited aspect of the truth . And it wasn’t until I realized this, and got help with my own shadow work, that I was able to let go of that anger and move past it.
To be fair, what I described really happened. And it sucked.
But I made it mean so much more. I made it mean:
- The hospital didn’t care about my brother or anyone else – not enough to check a doctor’s credentials
- The hospital just wanted our money, and felt no accountability for the pain they caused
- You can’t trust hospitals, in fact, you can’t trust any authority – if you do, you’re a sucker
- People just want money, and they don’t care who they hurt
- People don’t take responsibility for their mistakes, and they try to get away with murder
- Life is unfair, and if there is a God, he is a real asshole
So that is what I carried around with me growing up. No one cares. Life sucks. God is an asshole.
Just a few of the ways it impacted my life, and kept me from my goals, was that:
- I didn’t trust, even those who could help me and deserved my trust. I rarely connected personally with teachers, professors, employers or others who could mentor me and teach me the things I wanted to know. I turned to books, because I could judge the content and take what I deemed worthy – never mind the real world experience.
- I got overly-defensive at the slightest hint that others might be taken advantage of. I protected people who didn’t ask for or often want/need my input. I was quick to judge anyone “selling something” – whether it was a product or a service, or an idea/belief system
- I let my anger get in between myself and my family. I loved my brother, but every bad day that I got angry was another day that stopped being a big brother, and started relating to Ross as a “victim.” Every bad day that I got angry was another day that I stopped being a helpful son and brother, and started relating to my parents and sister like they weren’t doing enough to care for Ross.
What Else Happened? What Else Was True?
What happened happened. And what I made it mean was simply my incomplete story, full of emotions.
That story conveniently left out some details. Details that could illuminate the situation, and release the grip that anger had on me. Which is when forgiveness became possible.
That’s how shadows get formed. Light is available, but it is blocked. Otherwise, the shadow would disappear.
Moving past my anger was all about what I chose to focus on.
The #1 thing I did (that I highly recommend, especially around childhood trauma) is to go ask as many people as possible to tell me what they remembered about Ross’ brain injury.
What perspective could they add?
I had a couple phone calls with my mom that were incredibly helpful. While I was still looking at it from the point of view of a scared and angry kid trying to understand why his brother was struggling, she remembered other things.
- The hospital cared about my brother. He was given incorrect anesthesia, but he was also in and out of the hospital as an infant for surgeries that saved his life.
- Hospitals make mistakes, even when they care. They aren’t God, and they do save a lot of people’s lives. And small town hospitals in the early 1980’s didn’t have the most high-tech software for identifying fraudulent credentials.
- My brother was lucky. Two patients of this man were not. They died – from much less severe ailments.
- My family is closer now than we possibly ever would have been. My brother is able to live at home with my parents as an adult, when many in his situation are not. He is surrounded by people who love him, and he is an amazing human being full of love for everyone he meets.
When I was able to deal with my own issues, it freed me up to do so much more with my life.
Here are a few of the things that helped me, but you can just Google “shadow work” and find tons of resources that resonate with you.
- Workshop: The Landmark Forum
- Books: Transcending the Levels of Consciousness & Integral Life Practice
I started asking for help.
I started to appreciate authority figures and institutions that were trustworthy and could teach me what I needed to learn to make a difference in the world – specifically around social and environmental advocacy.
I thanked mentors whom I had not acknowledged from the past – and found new ones for the present.
I enjoyed time with my family more – not making them wrong or getting stuck being angry if my brother had a bad day. Today, I’m in the will as his secondary caregiver, and I spend a weekend and week each year with Ross giving my mom and dad a much-needed vacation.
I stopped making other people small by believing they needed me to come to their rescue all of the time – but I’m there if they need me.
Making a Difference
My experience with brain damage in our family growing up shaped who I am today. And the good lessons and strengths that were gained through those trials are no longer (at least not as much) cancelled out by anger and resentment that I am holding onto.
The projects that I work on now are much larger, and have a much broader positive impact in the world.
- Book: Stress-Free Sustainability
- Association: Iowa Sustainable Business Forum
- Community Project: A Garden for Every School
Holding onto my anger required that I keep a very narrow, and close-minded view about what happened — and what that meant about me, my family, others, life and God.
Forgiveness didn’t look like me realizing the hospital did nothing wrong.
Forgiveness looked like me realizing that mistakes happen. And the only way to move on and move past them was to let go of my anger, keep the good lessons, and leave the fictional stories behind that weren’t serving me or those I cared about.
Have you ever done shadow work around anger? What did you learn? Any recommendations for others?