Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131)
Jung was not the first to articulate the importance, indeed the sine qua non of (in Robert Johnson’s words) ‘owning your shadow’. Lao Tzu, some 2500 years ago, in four-score or so succinct reflections (Tao Te Ching) captured the essence of polarities and the essential role these extremes play in maintaining our balance, reworked in the following:
All behaviors contain their opposites. . . learn to see things backwards, inside out, upside down. (John Heider, Tao of Leadership, 1985 p. 36),
There can be no light – without the dark.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of first hearing, then meeting, Canon Philip Lambert (Truro Cathedral, UK) as he homilized on the ‘north side of the church’. Speaking first literally, he offered a description of that wall of a little parish church he’d visited recently: damp seemingly perpetually, moss-covered, avoided and thus neglected. Then metaphorically (and surprisingly), he spoke not about those segments of humanity from whom we avert our eyes – as one might expect, as the priest slides into a gentle castigation of our self-absorbed, superior ways, etc., etc. But speaking to encourage us to spend time in those ‘nether regions’, exploring those aspects of self and, in the process (as Jung would suggest), shedding healing (‘correcting’) light on same. I was sufficiently struck by his message to inquire about his psychological background – “nothing formal – just interested”.
Fast forward: Holy Week, 2010. A longtime wish of Nicola’s and mine had been to spend this special time of year within the walls of an English cathedral, finding ourselves this time in Chester for just that occasion. We’d come expecting a full palate of sung Evensongs supplementing all traditional service elements of the ‘season’. We were not disappointed. The ‘bonus’, as it were, however, followed Good Friday morning’s service: a three-hour devotional, somewhat enigmatically entitled Let There Be Dark. Canon Trevor Denis, a teacher, writer, and performer – in addition to his role as clergy, had assembled a selection of readings from his (several) collections of poems and stories, mingled with periods of contemplative silence, organ music, and hymns. The readings were delivered, depending on their particular ‘spin’, from the pulpit (the ‘right’ side as one faces the congregation) or the lectern (the left / sinister side) – the ‘light side’, upbeat stories being explored from the former, the ‘dark side’ from the latter. A plea for understanding from a Jew of the day, recounting the potential for chaos visited on him and his confreres by Jesus’ radical ideas, asking for a bit of patience and time to adjust. A diatribe against chocolate and ‘spring colours’, appropriately ending with ‘let there be dark’. Job’s wife given a voice; along with Eve’s feeling that it was ‘safe to go back in the water’ – only to find her long-awaited celebration shrouded in black. It came as no great surprise that, in the silence following each reading, the nave was absolutely still. This was not a man advocating dark thoughts, depressing views of the world, the consummate ‘glass half empty’ type. Only that each side serves to define the other; to inform, clarify and give meaning to the other – and both require exploration.
I am in the business of therapy. This process starts and ends with one’s capacity, indeed willingness, to self-examine, to ask one critical question: what am I to learn from any experience? It tracks one’s gradual shift from fault-finding in the world outside oneself to examination of one’s own inevitable role in, contribution to the circumstance in which one finds oneself. Its success turns on the courage to implement the answer(s) one is able to find on this introspective journey – and to steadfastly resist thereafter the temptation to place responsibility outside one’s own skin. For this to be a fully meaningful experience, it demands that we first accept, as Jung would have it, that there are those quirky, socially less-than-desirable, ‘private’ elements in each of us. Secondly, as Lambert and Dennis suggest, that we explore these aspects, not from a shame-faced or denying posture; but from a stance that is eager for understanding, candour, and objectivity (free of rationalization). And finally, to welcome these ‘exiled’ parts of self and grant them equal status. A charmingly, disarmingly simple examination of this process forms the core of a favourite film of mine – Enchanted April – and worth a look.
And so for those to whom it may apply, as we approach yet another Lenten season and are casting around for something to challenge ourselves over the next six weeks, perhaps taking on a little ‘shadow boxing’. Having a look at that elusive, shifty thing that only shows itself when some bright light sneaks up behind and illuminates us. That dark, distorted representation of self that mimics one's every move — but in sometimes perverse, sometimes scary, sometimes barely recognizable form; that we know to be present — but is out of sight, just for now. That paradox that we know we're responsible for — I mean who else could it belong to? — but seems somehow foreign, autonomous, not a part of us at all, as we gaze at its ragged form on the ground.