The other day I was out walking. As I went up the driveway, my shadow extended before me at a remarkable length, twice, maybe three times my height. I could not believe that I looked so tall. I enjoyed the feeling that, at least for the moment, I was ten feet tall. The feeling was short-lived. I must confess I was enthralled with my own shadow.
I’ve seen my shadow this way hundreds of times in my life, but perhaps it made a greater impression on me now because at my age I’m growing shorter.
There’s a little boy living in me who does not want to grow up. He doesn’t want to grow shorter either. On my walk that day I met this little boy once again in my shadow, and although I’ve aged, I knew right away my little boy wanted to play. So, I began playing. I tried to get the shadow to look like Darth Vader, the character from Star Wars.
The challenge was to position my body with the sun at my back to produce a shape like his; particularly to replicate the helmet on his head that identifies Darth Vader. Raising my arms near my head I could get the bottom part of the helmet visually contained within my shadow, but suddenly, postured this way and that, the entire shadow became a monolith with two burning eyes created by the light escaping from the raised arms near my elbows. I got into the game, but couldn’t get my shadow to do my bidding. My shadow had a mind of its own.
I’ve been wondering recently about the shadows we cast, but shadows of a very different kind.
I watched a Trump rally once. For an hour, he relentlessly vilified a host of perceived enemies. He denounced them as, liars, cheats, fakers, schemers, traitors, bad people, crooked, dishonest, conspirators, spies, despicable but to quote some. Trump, of course, was describing his own character traits.
The shadow knows.
Attributing to others our own undesirable traits is an ingrained human characteristic. Carl Jung, the famous psychiatrist, identified the phenomenon naming it our ‘shadow side,’ that darker side of our personality that we unconsciously disown.
Jung tells us that the ‘shadow side’ contains all those ugly attributes we possess, but we cannot admit them to our own consciousness. Instead, we impute them to others.
For people who may be influential, like high-profile celebrities or others who may enjoy social status and public confidence such as clergy, care givers and political leaders, their shadow can be very destructive. Here the matter of an unacknowledged shadow side becomes potentially ominous because such people are widely recognized and have credibility and authority. Their shadow side, if they are unaware of it, can wreak havoc on all those others upon whom this shadow might fall.
Recent disclosures of sexual abuse perpetrated by both Protestant and Catholic clergy disturbed Americans. How, we asked, could men sworn to virtue and commissioned by the church to serve others faithfully, maintain a façade of moral righteousness while actively engaging in sexual abuse? Even though the clerics may have turned their back on their shadows, the shadows never went away. Know thyself is more than a cliché. In the human family, this knowledge of self can avert a lot of pain and suffering.
Frederick Douglass wrote about his experience as a slave. He mentions two ordained clergy who were his slave masters. They were preachers and followers of Jesus Christ. They had spiritual authority invested in them by their denomination, and enjoyed the economic and social status the state granted them as land owners.
“All the slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.” Douglas writes. “I have found them the meanest, basest, the most cruel and cowardly of all others. It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in community with such religionists. Rev. Daniel Weeden owned a woman slave . . . this woman’s back was literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless religious wretch. Rev. Rigby Hopkins was even worse than Mr. Weeden. Both ministers were ordained in the reformed Methodist Church. The peculiar feature of Rev. Hopkins was that of whipping slaves in advance of ‘deserving it.’ He always managed to have one or more slaves to whip every Monday morning. He did this to alarm their fears and strike terror in those escaped.”
What would Jesus do? He certainly wouldn’t do that. What did these ministers think Jesus would do, anyway? I don’t imagine they gave it much thought. If they had, Weeden and Hopkins would have to know that Jesus made it clear how he didn’t want anyone to be his servants or slaves, he wanted them to be his friends. It’s right there in the Bible, in the Gospel of John.
Their shadow side had been successfully hidden from them. They kept it behind them and out of sight. To acknowledge their shadow side would jeopardize business. Free labor (slave holding) was a money maker, labor was costly to get (slaves weren’t cheap) and slaves were very hard to keep (they often ran away.)
We all have a shadow side. Our own shadow side contributes to many of our petty prejudices and aversions. In the normal course of events, it causes no great harm.
About my own shadow, then?
In this column, I choose not share the shadow side of my personality that I’m painfully aware of. The reason is simple enough; it’s embarrassing. To redeem myself some I will say this: I have given serious consideration to its nature and have tried diligently not to let my shadow side intimidate my better angels. Of course, I’m talking only about the shadow I can see, like the shadow falling in front of me on my walks. I know I’m sure to be blindsided by the one I can’t see behind me.
Certain shadows we cast may lead us to believe we’re bigger than we really are. For those of you who see just such a shadow and believe it’s an actual portrayal of you, I offer this caution. Tell those closest to you about it; a spouse, partner, especially your children, the older they are, the better. Be careful not to intimidate them, and they will tell you, not what you want to hear, but what you need to know.
Nothing but a passing cloud makes that long and grandiose shadow disappear as quickly as when your kin tell you how they really see you . . . including your shadow.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.