We need courage to confront our deepest fears and shame in order to overcome them, says Nicole Law.
I was recently struck by the author bell hooks (no capitals!) and her description of the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. In her book All About Love she describes how the patriarch embraces his adversary and refuses to let go.
In my imagination I saw a strapping young man who encounters an angel by a stream at night and ends up grappling with this figure in intense hand-to-hand combat. The dark night clearly represents the struggles we can go through ourselves, but the word I was most drawn to was – wrestle. An apt word to describe the interior struggle and the ‘war’ we wage behind our calm façades.
Often, we do not glimpse the difficulties that people face, as all we see is their cool and collected facial expression. I, like many people, silently wrestle with inner fears and demons, even when I appear serene. Perhaps the same goes for you. They tend to invade our thoughts when we feel isolated and yes, it’s true, when we are all alone at night.
In a moment of real insight, bell hooks notes that Jacob refuses to let go of the angel until he discovers the meaning of his struggle – that is until the angel gives him a blessing.
I see the darkness that cloaks Jacob as a metaphor for the woundedness we experience and which can give rise to feelings of shame. We have all been wounded by various experiences in our lives and the effects of these emotional and physical scars continue to seep into our behaviour and thought patterns.
Inadvertently, we are trapped by shame as it gives rise to disconnection. Or more simply, when cut, we cut ourselves off.
It is the shame we feel at having experienced a loss of love, identity and purpose and which leads us to turn away from the possibility of healing. This is evident in our tendency to deny or repress the reality that we have been hurt in some way in our lives. Yet, the story of Jacob illuminates a crucial point – embracing our wounds opens the pathway to healing.
In choosing to wrestle with his darker self, Jacob experiences a heightened awareness of the fears that are imprisoning him. He is able to make peace with these demons and discern their purpose – something we find exceedingly difficult and even impossible to do!
How many times have we heard a friend say to us, ‘there is a reason for this season’ and we have brushed away this advice as facile optimism. It’s hard to find a ‘reason’ for difficult circumstances or to rationalise ‘why’ we are experiencing them. Yet, only by naming our fears and anxieties can we begin to take away the power they have over us.
In my own life experience I have realised that if we are too afraid to come face to face with our deep fears, these fears will continue to control us.
The antidote to fear is not courage per se, but embracing vulnerability – placing ourselves in risky situations and letting the darkness quite literally come to light!
Two other details from Jacob’s story. Firstly, the patriarch wrestles with the angel precisely the night before he encounters his elder brother Esau, from whom he had to flee after having cheated him out of his inheritance. Jacob rightly fears his brother’s wrath. But he goes forward, facing his own guilt and trepidation, and sure enough achieves a beautiful reconciliation with his sibling. We too might need to conquer our sense of guilt in order to be reconciled with others.
And secondly, Jacob is given a new name, Israel, one who has striven with God, as a result of his nocturnal tussle. Through his 12 sons he then becomes the father of a nation. The willingness to fight our shame and fears, the struggle to overcome them, can be life-giving. We find not only healing ourselves, but can also embrace our mission to give life to others.
Jacob’s story provides me with much comfort to know that, as bell hooks reflects: “Like Jacob, wandering alone by the stream, in the stillness of my pitch-dark room I grappled with the metaphysics of love, seeking to understand love’s mystery.”
Wrestling with our fears is not something to be ashamed of. It’s an ongoing battle between the different parts of our deepest human nature. Jacob provides an example of what it means to wrestle with our ‘better’ angels, struggling but still trying to find the precious meaning behind our struggle.
The cover picture of this piece is named ‘Jacob wrestling with the Angel all night’ by Wonderlane on flickr. It is available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wonderlane/1450767338 and has been edited to include our branding. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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