Carl Jung told this story about how the idea of “the shadow’ came to him. “I had a dream which both frightened and encouraged me. It was night in some unknown place, and I was making slow and painful headway against a mighty wind. Dense fog was flying along everywhere. I had my hands cupped around a tiny light which threatened to go out at any moment. Everything depended on my keeping this little light alive. Suddenly I had the feeling that something was coming up behind me. I looked back, and saw a gigantic black figure following me. But at the same moment I was conscious in spite of my terror, that I must keep my little light going through night and wind regardless of all dangers. When I awoke I realized at once that the figure was my own shadow on the swirling mists, brought into being by the little light I was carrying. I knew too that this little light was my consciousness, the only light I have. Though infinitely small and fragile in comparison with the powers of darkness, it is still a light, my only light.“ (C. G. Jung in Memories, Dreams and Reflections)
I have had my own frightening and encouraging dreams. I often tell about the monster that chased me in my dreams for many nights as a young husband. My dear wife, a little frustrated with being awakened night after night, suggested I stop running from the monster and turn to face it. I was not sure I could direct a dream, but I determined to do what she advised. I can still remember how the terrifying thing kept running at me and then right through me. I was left without a scratch — and I was encouraged to face what lurked in my unconscious.
The integration of the shadow is a great work of holiness. Robert Johnson says, “We are advised to love our enemies, but this is not possible when the inner enemy, our own shadow, is waiting to pounce and make the most of an incendiary situation. If we can learn to love the inner enemy, then there is a chance of loving – and redeeming – the outer one.” (in Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche)
Owning one’s shadow
To refuse the dark side of one’s nature is to store up or accumulate the darkness. This boiling pot of self-denial is later expressed as a black mood, psychosomatic illness, or unconsciously inspired accidents. I think most people reading that sentence can feel the truth of it. If you show me contempt, the part of me hiding from abuse and unwilling to stand up to bullying critics might numb my whole emotional system, or I might take a weird risk with the car, or maybe I’d take the next day off from work.
Even though we know the work of repression in us, we are still committed to presenting a perfect-seeming self and are offended when it is not respected. Both the secular and religious side of the American experiment are ill-served by a streak of pride and perfectionism that show a lack of integration. Obama’s “exceptionalism” and Trump’s “greatness” both reflect it. Antiracist radicals and antiabortion radicals both produce the violence and disorder we are experiencing in the name of their perfect political positions. [Listen to David Brooks recently talking about the scourge of “essentialism”]
Any repair of the fractured world must start with people who have the insight and courage to own their own shadow. This should be a well-known teaching of the Bible, since Paul demonstrated it.
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. — 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Many read this statement as a one and done: “Once I was a lout, but now, by the grace of God, I am perfected. Now I am perfectly shadowless.” I read it as an ongoing process of development: “I understand I am the worst of sinners and the beloved of God at the same time.” Paul is repeatedly trying to undo the heresy that Jesus makes us perfect in anything but grace (especially in Corinth!).
Integrate or project the shadow
When we do not integrate our shadows and live with enough humility to recognize our sin and receive our salvation, we project the shadow on others. To avoid this seems like an easy change of mind, but intolerable feelings that have been denied access to our conscious thoughts and actions are never easy to look at: guilt and shame, fury, worthlessness, fear and the trauma that often stores them in deep recesses.
Unless we do conscious work on it, the “shadow” side of us is almost always “projected;” that is, it is laid on someone or something else so we do not have to take responsibility for it. Mates are notorious for asking their spouses, “How do you feel?” when it is they who have a feeling they fear to express. Suddenly their mate feels defensive about a feeling they didn’t even have before their spouse walked in. Their partner should have stuck with having their own troubling feeling, On the other side of things, a weak-feeling partner might compliment their spouse for doing something, like driving or cooking, at which they, themselves, are actually quite adept and like doing. But they would rather give it over to someone else rather than bear the weight of being competent or being subject to scrutiny.
When we sit in the movie theatre we are in the position of the projector, so the theatre is an ideal venue for projecting our fears at a horror movie, or our anger and hate in a war movie or our unspeakable desires in a romance or crime drama. The economy makes billions off our disinterest in integrating.
It is easy to see society work out projection. The two political parties in the U.S. have created an image of the other party as terrorists or devils. In a recent NYTimes opinion article, Michelle Goldberg referred to Trump as a “Master of Projection” and noted that many instances of Trump’s projections were uncannily predictive of his future actions as president. He accused others of what he did not want to own as his own traits. Examples include roundly criticizing Mitt Romney for failing to release his tax returns and berating Barack Obama for watching too much TV in the White House, playing too much golf, and overusing Air Force One for “politics and play” (see The Nightmare Stage of Trump’s Rule Is Here. Jan 6, 2020, and this analysis).
Therapists often work with the projections their clients put on them to a good end. The therapy relationship is an ideal place to see what is happening in the shadowy places we can’t see or refuse to accept. Likewise, when I was a pastor, I often called myself a “projection screen,” since I often wore all sorts of unconscious processes instead of having the face-to-face dialogue I prized. Once I was out of the proverbial saddle, my “legacy” ironically became place to project fears and desires; I’ve heard about people using an abstraction of what I represent to make a point instead of owning their own feelings and thoughts. It is easier to “not be the old guy” or “not that less-than-desirable thing.”
Most of the time we think we project the dark, unacceptable part of our selves. But it is also possible to project the best of oneself onto another person or situation. Our hero-worshiping capacity is pure shadow; our finest qualities can be refused and laid on another. A child may idolize an older sibling, feeling they ought to be but cannot be like them. Soon they will be like them and then, as a fourteen year old, they will find someone eighteen with whom to catch up.
Last week included Francis of Assisi Day. My family and friends know he is a hero of mine. When I did not have time for my annual showing of Brother Sun Sister Moon in his honor, I felt a strange lack of guilt, even though I had “betrayed” my hero. Looking back on my unexpected lack of feeling, I think I may have less need for him than I used to. I am more content with my own value and less in need of an aspiration. Being a Franciscan may have been easier than being Rod in some ways. His character and worth are widely respected, whereas I will need to survive the investigation of critics on my own merit.
There is help
God loves your shadow, too! It is you! He may love it more than your sense of self which competes with God’s sense of you. The repressed elements that become our shadow are often positive qualities, ultimately. When we project them on others, God has to be a bit disappointed.
I think God loved how Paul could own his past. He did not repress his murderous intent or his ignorant pride. He did not feel like his opponents were all terrorists or ignorant fools. He knew everyone needed mercy, just like he did. His trustworthy saying was a present tense experience: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” Jesus came into the world today, too, still patiently walking with us. Maybe you feel Republicans or Democrats are sinners who need to be eradicated, or believe Lady Gaga is the star you are supposed to be but never will be. Jesus came to help us reel in such projections and learn to be loved — all of us, the parts we already own and the disowned parts yet to be integrated.