I write of shadows, inspired by the recent solar eclipse in the U.S.A. mainland. “It is a dark time,” people whisper; but it is in a dark time that the eye begins to see. And the darkest place is under the light; we tend to overlook what is right in front of our nose!
There is a part of ourselves that we don’t want to look at; things we would rather hide and see in other people. That part which the Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, referred to as our “shadow.” Because we turn our face from our least desirable aspects, the shadow is largely negative; however positive aspects may also remain hidden in one’s shadow especially in people with low self-esteem or who delight in a life of depravity and degeneracy. Think of the shadow as anything in our unconscious, and you can see how it may be both positive and negative. How many people are unaware of the spark of Divinity that they are?
The danger of being blind to our shadow is that it blinds us to the world. Instead of recognizing ‘faults’ in ourselves, we perceive moral deficiencies in others. We project unto others what we should see in ourselves. In this way, we cannot see the world clearly and as it is.
The best way to know your shadow-side is to notice what qualities you tend to criticize in other people. What really irritates you about people? What do you morally disdain so much? When you judge, you are judging yourself. As Matthew asked in his Gospel: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Ouch.
There are also shadow realities that exist in relationships. In addition to the reality that a couple shares together, each may harbor alternative interpretations of their lives together- interpretations that might appear unacceptable and threatening if revealed to the partner. These shadow realities are typically generated and supported by persons outside the relationship; hiding things from each other dooms a relationship to banalities and superficialities and eventual dissolution.
And projection is not just engaged in by individuals but also by groups, religions, communities, countries; we commonly see it during wars and other conflicts in which the outsider or adversary is dehumanized and demonized. Witness all the name calling and pejoratives thrown at each other by protesters and counter-protesters; words that best describe those who shout them! For each belief, there exists a strong countertendency shadow: one believes it is wrong to be intolerant yet feel that their prejudices are valid; or that there should be equality but hierarchies are also good, etc.
If we don’t acknowledge and accept our shadow side, we are bound to a life of inner conflict; and that conflict will play out in our world. The shadow is most destructive when habitually repressed and projected; the priest becomes a pedophile, the preacher a pornographer. The saintly Dr. Henry Jekyll is taken over by the demonic Edward Hyde.
It can be a challenging and perilous journey into the darkness of the soul; but a journey that needs to be made to become whole, i.e. to heal. It is a process of self-education, self-discovery, and self-awareness that will allow us to see clearly. There in the depths where the streets have no names, we will find the seat of creativity. We can assimilate the shadow, rather than be possessed by it.
There is nothing to be ashamed of when meeting our shadow. The shadow is neither good nor bad; it is simply there in our unconscious. Those thoughts, feelings, and even activities related to sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, anger, and pride are all encoded in our brains; in the grooves of our reptilian (brainstem) and mammalian (limbic) brains, we will find the roots of our animalistic nature. But we do have a distinctly human brain (neocortex) that allows us to override the beast in us so we can anticipate, plan, cooperate, and live harmoniously. Let us nurture and further develop this part of ourselves. Study, reflect, journal, and meditate; and do this work continuously throughout life.
Lastly, we live in the shadow of death. Western society sees death as a failure; it is not. It is part of life. Embrace it to live fully. To understand the meaning of life is to understand the meaning of death. The night will pass, the candle will burn out. We have work to do, and the butterfly will spread her wings.