I have read this quote over and over again. James Baldwin died before I was born. Our lives could seemingly not be more different, and yet this quote articulates my own experience and that of countless others so perfectly.
The “filth” that Baldwin references is an unfortunate reality of the human experience. Every person has some negative belief about themselves that they carry around with them. They may not be aware of it. They may refuse to acknowledge it. They may be able to forget it’s there. But then something happens, and the filth rises to the surface once again.
Addressing these negative beliefs is often a focus for therapy. In CBT, clients are taught to notice their automatic, negative thoughts and challenge them. EMDR also targets negative cognitions. Clients select target memories with their therapists and pair them with a negative belief. When a target memory is completely reprocessed and the client is no longer experiencing a disturbance, then the therapist pairs the memory with a positive belief instead.
Personally, I am comforted by the fact that we all walk around with filth. I notice now when someone is reacting from that place and I can have empathy for them—because I know what it’s like to sit in my own filth.
It can be difficult, at times, to not take on others’ filth as my own. To be in close relationship with another human being is to acknowledge one another’s filth. To be intimate is to expose our filth and hope to be met with understanding and acceptance.
The first step it appears, however, is to expose this filth to ourselves. As Baldwin so perfectly stated, “it took years of vomiting up all of the filth” before he could have a different experience of what it is to be human. Each time we acknowledge the filth that we’re carrying around and examine it with curiosity, we have the opportunity to meet ourselves with compassion rather than shame. This intimacy with the self can be powerful and healing. It’s also incredibly uncomfortable. “Vomiting” is such an excellent word choice.
Human beings are incredibly resilient. On the other side of the intense discomfort of knowing oneself is the profound relief of authenticity. Most clients, I’ve found, find the person buried in filth to be someone worth knowing.
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