Afraid of our own shadow


Sometimes there comes a moment in our lives when we realize that we are not the people we think that we are.

One of those moments happened to me about a year ago when I visited my alma mater, my seminary. I wanted to go there to get a change of scenery, enjoy the comforting heat, and do some writing. I was staying in the big, warm home of my friends Lewie Donelson and Lin Team.

I was most excited about visiting the library. I had a long list of books I needed to look up. There are a number of theological libraries in D.C., of course, but I spent so many hours in my seminary library that going back feels like I’m visiting a living room from my childhood. With that smell of old rough yellow paper–it’s like home.

Except, when I got there, I could not find a single book that I needed. None of them were there. I couldn’t believe it. So, I left a letter for the director of the library, enumerating all of the volumes and the reasons why they ought to be in every theological library.

When I returned to the house, Lewie (one of my former professors) was making dinner. I dropped my book bag, helped myself to a glass of water and said, “You know, I’m a nice person. I don’t mean to complain. I don’t mean to be a pain. But I had to leave a letter. I just couldn’t believe that the books weren’t there….”

And my good teacher said, “Yes you do.”

I looked up from the glass and asked, “What? Yes I do what?”

“You do mean to complain. And you do mean to be a pain. You’ve always been a pain, Carol. You don’t know that about yourself? Because we all know that about you.”

I laughed. And it hit me all at once. It was like one of those Academy Awards lifetime achievement shows, where a whole career of scenes flashes on a screen. Except it was just in my head… this entire montage of gripes and protests were there… twelve year’s worth. And I realized that ever since I stepped foot on that campus, I was making a fuss about something.

He was right. I thought of myself as this really nice, easily satisfied person, but I do like to complain. I do like being a pain. I keep things stirred up all the time.

I don’t think I’ve really embraced the scrappy side of myself often, because I don’t think it’s very attractive. I love women who fight. In history they’re my greatest heroes.

But, I’m a spiritual leader, and so I like to think that I rise above the fray. When I think of the room of my spiritual life, I think of all the nice things. How much I like to pray. Stuff like that. I don’t like to imagine what’s creeping about in the corners.

And yet, ignoring the things that we don’t like about ourselves doesn’t make them go away.

To put this in psychological terms, this side of me, this angry, frustrated, and never-content side of me is my shadow side. Carl Jung writes about this a lot. In many of his works, he talks about the shadow side of humans. He says that most humans aren’t actually as good as we think we are. And we walk around with these shadows lurking within us. The more that we repress them or ignore them, the denser the shadow gets. And we have a greater conflict with our conscious selves.

We see religious leaders who get caught in this trap all the time. The preacher rails against family values in our society with consuming fury. Then, the next thing you know, he’s been caught with some prostitute.

We shake our heads at the hypocrisy. But, the actions make a lot of sense in Jungian terms. The man’s conscious self was in deep conflict with his shadow side. And the results were thoroughly destructive.

And so I’m learning to recognize those things that lurk about in the shadows. The unattractive things I don’t like to see in the mirror–I’m figuring out how embrace them, hold them, and realize that they’re a part of who I am.

photo’s by Kristin Hayes


11 thoughts on “Afraid of our own shadow

  1. Great post.

    How do we then make friends with the shadows?

    I have been going to a spiritual director and he looks at the world with eyes that see three people in every one. There is the child self, the mature adult self, and the critical adult. We engage life in these selfs. He holds life to be the journey to protect the child in us from the critical adult using the mature healthy adult as the pivot point.

    I am not too sure if this makes sense.

    BTW I love to complain also. I think that is the punk part. Perhaps you are punk enough for the tattoo.

  2. I like to think of complaining in theological terms which is where Moltmann comes in handy… We have a vision of the coming Kingdom which includes appropriately stocked libraries and this vision afflicts us – we know the full arrival of the kingdom is in God’s hands and God’s hands alone but because we see beyond what currently exists we work toward the coming Kingdom in anticipation of that Kingdom. Even when its the small stuff like “Why is there only one cash register open when five people are standing in line?”

    Perhaps the question is – When should we be angry prophets and when should we be pastoral shepherds and when should we “just let it go?”

    Shadow work (jungian) is a great place for me to learn loving kindness. Its our shadow because we hate this part of ourselves. Acknowledging it doesn’t have to mean becoming it which I think i fear, especially when I was busy shoving it all into the back room of my skull as a child, (part of the process of adapting to culture – the big one and our family). Still I trip over my shadow all the time. If I didn’t repress, it wouldn’t be my shadow… What i’m only now learning is what you just got as great feedback from your friends: people still love us in spite of knowing about these broken places.

    Which drives me back to Grace no matter how many times I keep trying to fix myself or do better or good enough. I’m not able to earn this love, certainly not God’s love, but for some uncomprehendable reason, I am loved.

    I deal with my shadow by remembering (and forgetting more than I remember) that even the dark places in me I fear are known to Jesus Christ who keeps breaking the bread and pouring the cup and inviting me to join him and the rest of humanity for dinner.

    hmmm, I meant to be a bit more flip in this posting, more ironically distant but ah, what the heck. Earnest writing. Except for the shadow stuff that has snuck in w/o my seeing it…

  3. Great thoughts Anitra. I love Molmann’s Hope and Planning. It was probably the most inspiring and practical theology that I read as a new pastor–especially in a small church.

    Ryan asked, “How do we then make friends with the shadows?”

    I think about what Thich Nhat Hanh said about anger. He said that we should hold it, on our laps, like we would a child. Feel the anger and surround it with love. That image is often with me… it’s been very helpful. It seems to run parallel to your SD’s thoughts….

    You know the thing about a tattoo… I think I’m commitment phobic. How do you decide on one thing?

  4. I heard a Buddhist recording where the speaker (cannot remember her name) commented that anger is essentially fear. As I thought of this it made a lot of sense, especially as I considered the many times I express anger towards my children’s actions or lack of actions. So I began to express my anger in terms of fear and was quite surprised with the different response that came from my children. Rather than yelling at the boys when they are wrestling on the floor right beside the corner of the toybox and the nine year old is pinning the four year to the floor, I try to express my fear. “I’m afraid that you may hit your heads on the corner of the box and that your weight on your brother may actually hurt him.” When they hear my fear, they seem much more willing to change their actions. It was really quite interesting to experience. Writing about this is a good reminder, since I find it easier to resort to yelling than to name my fears. Just like holding anger on your lap as you would a child, fearfulness is something one can have compassion towards.
    Thanks for your post Carol. It’s great to think these things through.

  5. Jung, whom I love, also talks about the power that is available when one embraces one’s shadow side as part of themselves. The shadow side is still entirely you, and I would even say that it is part of the image of God, though I realize that requires more explaining than I want to do in your comments section. But I think that what Jung says about the shadow side is true. So the question is – what do you gain by embracing it? What kind of power is there that you’re not (yet) using?

  6. Good to hear it, Diane!

    Linda, you know I bet that works the other way around as well. When other people get angry, perhaps we can deal with it better if we can understand that fear’s at the core.

    Doug, the shadow side as the image of God…. That’s taking me a bit to get my head around… but I can see it. Yes.

    Now, I’ll be thinking about your other two questions for the rest of the evening. Or maybe the week…

  7. Carol,
    You will know what to place on your body. For me I like a lot of stuff so I decided to get covered in them and not worry about what others think. A pastor can still love, serve, and minister to the children of God with or without tattoos.
    Thank you for the Thich Nhat Hanh illustration, it is great.

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