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