Thursday, December 29, 2011

Shadows in the Night

Every little girl has a monster that keeps them up at night. Mine was: “the Shad” or Shadows, and it was a nightly ritual in my house that upon tucking me in, my parents would put on a large ritual of wrestling “the Shad,” hoisting him up, and throwing him out my window. The monster that I made up who only came out at night was, of course, merely the large oak tree outside my window casting its shadow on my wall. But “the Shad” was a fear that my parents weren’t quite sure what to do with.

Carl Jung writes extensively about the human “shadow.” Our ego is who we consciously perceive ourselves to be. Our persona is who we wish to be seen as in the world. Our shadow is those repressed, feared aspects of ourselves that we fail to see and consciously know, and as I illustrated in my childhood story, we engage in shadow-making very early in our lives. Our culture begins instructing us very early on of what behaviors, activities, and personality traits are appropriate or valued and what ones should not be shown, should, in fact, be repressed. Though we are born whole, we divide ourselves into an ego and a shadow according to the characteristics our particular culture values and consequently promotes in us.

When we choose not to incorporate or ritualize our shadow side consciously and instead repress it, chances are good that we will project it onto another person, or even onto a whole group where it appears to us in the form of bigotry, racism, etc. Through time immemorial we have been repeating our absurd projections onto one another. Jung stated at the end of the Second World War: “Now that the angel of history has abandoned the Germans, the demons will seek a new victim. And that won't be difficult, for every man who loses his shadow, every nation that falls into self-righteousness, is their prey.” Years later he would remind us again: “It is the face of our own shadow that glowers at us across the Iron Curtain.”
“The Shad” is a monster that I have dealt with all my life. Though intellectually I know that I have nothing to fear and it is only a product of my childhood psyche, I must admit that in my most vulnerable moments, I still leave a light on at night. I think this is because our fears, our weaknesses, those sides of ourselves that we don’t want to admit are there, go far beyond our intellect. They affect us in a soul way, in a way that engages our senses and our emotions. My “Shad” has transformed over time, and my modern day Shad is far more than a monster, he is all the things about me that I dislike. 

What is so dangerous about our shadow side is that most of the time we aren’t even aware of its activity. The idea that there is a side of ourselves that isn’t easily compartmentalized into one of the many masks we put on in a day is slightly disturbing. In fact, the idea that there is anything in our lives that isn’t under our direct control is flat out alarming. Is our shadow really something to fear though? Your damn right it is! The human unconscious is a mighty power to be dealt with. Left unattended to, it is capable of the horrors we see in our newspapers, the tragedy we see on our televisions, and yes, the small hurts that we witness in our own communities and families. Shadow?…original sin?…call it what you will. It’s there, and it’s there to teach us something.

The shadow side of human existence is radically dangerous, but only when hidden behind an agreeable nod and a fake smile. When we do honest work with it and admit that it is a part of our being, we can begin to take control and become authentically self-aware.Of course, self awareness stings a little. The phrase, “Ignorance is Bliss” has a stark truth to it. Dealing with the fact that the people we can’t stand being around are most probably the people that reflect back to us a dimension of our own personality is a frustrating realization. But admitting that fact to ourselves can be a valuable way to better see the dimension of ourselves that it is most difficult to discover, that dimension of ourselves we least know. Perhaps this truth is why Jesus called us to “love our enemies,” for if we can do that, than we just might have a shot at learning to love our shadow, and consequently, our Selves.

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