The Shadow Knows


America in the 1930’s saw the creation of the father of the superheroes we know today. Some of you may recall listening to an old radio show that began with heavy music,
then ominous-sounding laughter,
and then these words: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”

“The Shadow” was a man of mystery who would strike “terror in the very souls of sharpsters and lawbreakers.” The Shadow was introduced in the early 1930’s simply as the narrator of a radio mystery show, but the character was so popular that it was fully developed in detective magazines, comic books, and later, a television show and movies.

The Shadow was depicted wearing a dark fedora, a dark cloak with a tall collar, and a red scarf covering his face, so all we could see was his eyes.

His superpower was that he was invisible. Or rather, the story goes that in his travels in East Asia, he learned the mysterious power to cloud people’s minds, so that we could not see him. The Shadow had the power to escape our sight.

What was it about The Shadow that drew people in and called this character into being? One clue is the timing. In the 1930’s, the US was in the Great Depression with millions of people out of work, hungry and living in poverty. That decade saw the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, most notably in Germany and Italy. By the end of the 30’s the world was at war, a war that would unleash unimaginable horrors. The Shadow reflected the evil that was so evident in the world.

Psychologist Carl Jung gave us the psychological concept of “the shadow.” I wonder if there is something about “our shadow” that draws us to “The Shadow.” Here is what Jung said: we humans have two processes in our mind: the conscious, or known, and unconscious, or not known. As our personality develops, we keep in our conscious mind an ideal-what we want to be and how we want to be seen by others. We put away in our unconscious mind what we don’t want to be and want to keep hidden. “The shadow” is a metaphor for what is in our unconscious mind, out of our awareness.

The poet Robert Bly uses the metaphor of a bag to represent our shadow. He says that we each have a big bag that we drag behind us filled with the things that we were taught were “bad” by our parents, teachers, peers, and culture. Bly goes on to say this: “We spend our life until we’re 20 deciding which parts of ourselves to put in the bag and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.”

Can you bring to your consciousness something that might be in your shadow; something in the bag that you drag behind you? Can you feel the weight of that bag?

I learned about Jung’s theory of the shadow in some depth during my chaplaincy internship at the Oregon State Hospital and it was there that I came face-to face with part of my shadow.

I went into the State Hospital system with a helper mentality. You see, I am one of those helper types. I have been all my life; a product of culture, socialization and temperament. I was taught that being a helper is being selfless; what I do is for other people.

At the hospital, I entered a system where I learned quickly that there wasn’t much that I could do. I could not fix the broken mental health system that the hospital is a part of. I couldn’t fix the criminal justice system that many patients in the hospital are entangled in. I couldn’t fix the brains or bodies of the patients that I saw as a chaplain. I learned what it feels like to be helpless. And, I learned that I really don’t like to feel helpless. It challenged my sense of who I was as a helper. If I couldn’t help, if I couldn’t fix things, who was I? And, it was then that I saw my shadow: I was a helper who needed to help. It was my identity, how I defined myself and who I was. There was something in it for me; it wasn’t selfless after all. There was my shadow.

Jung and other psychologists suggest that we can usually be aware of the shadow of others even though we aren’t very aware of our own. Our shadow remains hidden to us unless we bring it into consciousness. We tend to ignore our shadow because we hold a belief that we are broken, and we are afraid of what might happen if we bring our brokenness into awareness. If the bag stays closed, the shadow remains hidden, and we remain unaware of what everyone else is aware of.

The thing about our shadow is that it just doesn’t sit there quietly waiting to be discovered. No, just like The Shadow, our shadow can cloud our minds and distort our thinking. And, those difficult feelings and personas that we put in the bag? They will find some way to come out. What we have labeled bad and put in our unconscious affects how we feel, think and behave, in ways that we don’t even understand.

During my time at the Hospital, the dynamic of my need to be a helper played itself out in several ways. One way was that I thought I needed to be doing something for the patients. I needed to be helping in some way. With the attention and support of my colleagues, I identified this part of my shadow, and began to come to terms with it. I realized that there is a part of me that needed to be a helper, which can be a good thing. But, when my attention and focus turns from the need of the person in front of me to my need to be a helper, then I am under the influence of my shadow. I learned that often the patients needed me just to be with them, to listen if they wanted to talk, or just be present if not. They didn’t need me to DO anything. I may have been the only person they saw all day who didn’t have an agenda. An agenda was my need, not theirs.

In my time at the hospital and since, I have had several occasions to try out my new-found knowledge about my shadow, and I have no doubt that I will have many more opportunities to practice in my lifetime. Was it hard to face my shadow? Yes-emotionally taxing, physically draining, and, sometimes really embarrassing. Was it worth it? Yes, I believe it was. With this knowledge, I will be a better partner, daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, minister.

I want to acknowledge that I am using a dichotomy of shadow and light in way that might suggest that dark is bad and light is good. This is not the case at all. Our shadow is a rich source of information about ourselves that we can bring into awareness to be whole. Rather than being bad, the shadow is our source for growth, freedom and wholeness. It is only by acknowledging and accepting our whole selves as we are now, all of it, that we can transform and become our very best selves. Darkness deserves gratitude.

That is the theory of “the shadow” for individuals. As I was studying the shadow, I came across a short phrase in an article that suggested that there is also a shadow for nations. Just like individuals, nations have a bag of things that they drag around, that they don’t want to look at, and that rules them in ways that they are unaware of. I was reading this at the time of our presidential campaign and election last Fall, when our nation’s shadow was screaming for attention in harmful and destructive ways.

For example, our leaders hold up our democratic principles as a model, yet enact voter suppression laws in this country and support repressive regimes around the world. Our media hold to the myth of the American Dream that anyone can get ahead with hard work, yet the people who work the hardest are falling further behind in a system that rewards those who already have the most. Our leaders profess peace, yet the US is the number one seller of arms in the world and spends more on the military than the next seven countries combined.

There is hope. It is possible for a nation to embrace its shadow and grow in its ability to be whole and a leader in the world. Here’s one example.

In December 2015, Filmmaker Michael Moore released his movie “Where to Invade Next.” His idea was to peacefully “invade” other countries that were doing things well and bring the ideas back to the US.

Moore travels to a country that could have a very large shadow: Germany. Less than 100 years ago, Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power, dismantled a democracy, then unleashed a war and horrors like we had not seen in modern times. It would be easy for the German people to repress this history, leaving it in the past, ignoring their country’s part in genocide and a world war, and denying any long-term consequences. They could put this history in their shadow.

Instead, Moore shows us that German children learn about this part of their history throughout their school years. They are taught German history, what happened, plus why and how it happened. Secondary school teens hear about concentration camp experiences directly from camp survivors. With the support of their teachers, their communities and their families, German children are told the truth about WWII and the holocaust in age appropriate ways. In the movie, one young German man says that he knows it is important that he learn his country’s history so that he can help make sure it never happens again. No secrets, just clarity about what we humans are capable of and what happens when evil prevails.

What a revolutionary idea! What if this idea really was brought back to the US? We have a large shadow, a very heavy bag that we have not unpacked and drag behind us still. What would it be like if we were to teach our children about our entire history? What would it be like if we were to learn our history? If our white culture were to acknowledge that this land was inhabited when Europeans came? That war, deceit, disease and many other nasty tricks were used to take the land from the First Peoples. This is the story that was told at Standing Rock last year, in the voices of Indigenous People.

What if our white culture were to acknowledge that the US was built on the backs of African slave labor? It took a Civil War to stop the legal institution of slavery. Jim Crow was used to continue the oppression of blacks and the New Jim Crow continues it today. The families of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray and so many others can tell us this story.

What if our white culture were to acknowledge that the country’s prosperity, for some anyway, was and is due to immigrant labor? The West was built, in part, by immigrants from Asia; those of Japanese descent were rounded up into internment camps during WWII. Today, Latina and Latina individuals in detention centers and their families can tell us this story.

What if we were to tell the whole story? What if we were to teach that this history is important because we are all responsible for making sure that this kind of oppression ends and does not happen again? What if we were to follow the example of South Africa and hold truth and reconciliation hearings led by our own Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Imagine what our culture and our society could be like!

Just like with our personal shadows, the solution is to open the bag, to bring the contents into awareness. I am not suggesting that we tell these stories to blame or shame anyone. We could approach our collective shadow with openness and curiosity, not fear.

First, we must name what is in our collective shadow; call it what it is honestly, accurately, and publically. No euphemisms, no minimizing, no secrets, no alternative facts. Some parts of our shadow are quite visible to some people. Racism is not invisible to people of color and Indigenous people. Sexism is not invisible to women. Classism is not invisible to people who live in poverty. Xenophobia and nationalism is not invisible to the rest of the world. We must tell the truth of our history, in all its forms, for there are many truths here.

Then, we must claim what is in our shadow. This doesn’t mean that we whitewash or sugarcoat it. It doesn’t mean that we reframe it as a positive thing when it isn’t. It means that we own it: these things happened. They are part of our history. This is what it meant then and this is what it means now. This is what we humans are capable of, great good and great evil, both.

Finally, after naming and claiming, then we can transform the present and the future. Just as the young German man said, we understand all of what happened in the past so that we can help make sure it doesn’t happen again. This work is necessary for our wholeness as a people, a nation, and a world.

Facing our shadows, both individual and national, is not easy. It is hard work and can be painful. It is not a linear process that we do once and are done with. It is work that requires on-going attention and vigilant awareness.

It is work that we are called to in our 4th UU Principle: the free and responsible search for truth and meaning. It is the work that we do in our congregations and communities, work that we cannot do alone. For this work, we need all voices, and we need each other.

The symbol of our Unitarian Universalist denomination is a flaming chalice. Just like during WWII, this is a time when the light of our chalice is needed. To bring our national shadow into awareness, we, all people, must overcome our discomfort, open the bag, and illuminate what is inside. To be whole as a nation and a people, to be the world leaders for peace and justice that we can be, we must name it, claim it and transform our future. This doesn’t require superpowers; it does require generosity and love, courage and persistence.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of people– and nations? The shadow knows—and is willing to reveal its secrets if only we will open the bag and shine our light inside. That is how we start. We must begin– our future depends on it.
May it be so.

I invite you now into a time of reflection and prayer.

Web of Life, Spirit of Love, Great Mystery,
Thank you for this day. In darkness and in light, it is a beautiful day to be glad in.

We relish the coming of the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year, when we bask in the warmth and daylight of Summer. In this time of light, let us not forget the riches that lie in the darkness; the rich, dark soil of the Earth that gives us such bounty, the magic of the night sky, the riches within us waiting to be discovered. Darkness deserves gratitude.

Help us remember that when we move down into the darkness of the Earth, through all of her layers, we get to her core–a fiery ball of light. It is the same with us; when we move down into our depths and shine a light in the darkest corners, we find the light that is life itself.

Web of Life, help us to remember that we are all connected, that our connection spans past and future generations, and that celebrating our wholeness is celebrating life.

Spirit of Love, help us to remember that love is strong enough to hold us as we peer into the darkness, that love unites us, and that the love of community is large enough to hold us all.

On this day, may the light of life and love surround us all. May all be fed, may all be healed, and may all be loved.
May it be so. Blessed Be. Amen.