Everyone of us is a combination of light and dark, up and down. Living on a mountaintop, free of worry, disruption or fear, is simply not sustainable. Probably not even healthy, if it were possible.
There are common shadows we all grapple with – things like a sense of inadequacy, feeling invisible, unlovable or being convinced that we don’t belong, isolation, fear of failure, feeling taken for granted. These were mentioned in The Shadows – Part I.
I. Our Shadows: What Are They?
How can we be sure that our shadows don’t turn on us, take on a life of their own, and lead us down a dark, destructive path? We see many examples of this on a daily basis, and we declare emphatically: I am not like that and I will never be like that!
The other day a curious, but thoughtful nine-year-old asked me: “What’s your downfall?” Hmm, the questions children ask. So to explain: the downfall was described as something that isn’t necessarily negative, but could become negative, depending on how much it controls us. I call it the shadow. A sure way for a shadow to turn dark is to resist acknowledging it, and thus avoid dealing with it.
There’s a snag, though. Our lives tend to veer in the direction of things we abhor the most. And if we disdain our shadow, it will inevitably overpower and suffocate us. If I tend toward spending more money than is necessary, my shadow of self-loathing will drive me to spending even more. If I question my own worth and retreat into isolation, my shadow of self-doubt will push me deeper into my own little world.
Furthermore, the thing that disturbs us most is exactly what we adamantly deny lives within us.
We may loudly declare our superior insights, but may be hiding deep inadequacy and fear the discovery of our limitations. We may adamantly deny racism, sexism, greed or arrogance while secretly battling those very tendencies.
Do you recognize yourself? I sure do! Invariably when I make an “I’m not” statement, the very next day, I catch myself at exactly that thing. Maybe your shadows aren’t listed here, but parallels can be drawn, if you take the time to ponder.
II. Our Shadows: Can We Embrace Them?
I have to be honest: initially we work around or deny our shadows. It’s too intimidating to admit them. But, we finally come to a place where we can no longer ignore them. Can we learn how to embrace our shadows? Absolutely. The first step is recognition.
You may say: but I have no idea what my shadows are. Can I assume I’ve dealt with them or I don’t have any?
Sorry to disappoint you, but no!
Being unaware of our shadows doesn’t mean they don’t exist. In fact, if we cannot see our shadows, they may well be substantial and probably very visible to others.
Here are a few clues:
* the first clue is having very strong feelings: rage; jealousy; inadequacy; debilitating fear; feelings of enormous superiority.
Let’s take a common problem for many people: road rage. Why does our blood pressure instantly soar when someone cuts us off In traffic? Is it because we wish our car were as cool as theirs? Is it because we feel disrespected? If we’re dealing with shadows of inferiority and have an overly sensitive ego, this may be a reason we respond as we do.
* another related clue is some type of over-reaction.
If a child spills milk and we respond with grounding them for a week, we say “the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.” The resulting question is: what is driving this over-reaction? Is it burnout our fatigue, which are conditions that can be addressed? Or is it a false sense of authority? Maybe an unreasonable expectation based on what our experiences were as children, or our fear that this child may grow up to be undisciplined, and therefore reflect badly on us.
* a further clue: we are disturbed by something about another person (or situation) and come to loath that behavior, position (ideology) or person.
…………..either we see something in another person which is present in our lives, but we don’t recognize it,
…………..or something in someone else reminds us of past experiences which we have never dealt with.
Awareness is critical. These behaviors are rooted in shadows which are not inherently wrong, but if left unattended, will cause us and others immeasurable harm and agony. At this point we can either deny our shadows, or we can take a deep breath, know our shadows do not make us less valuable, and look for ways to embrace and work with / through them.
III. Our Shadows: Is Shadowboxing in Your Future?
Shadowboxing? What is that and what’s it got to do with me?
The classic definition of shadowboxing has to do with training for combat sports – most notably, boxing. It’s goal is to strengthen and train muscles necessary in one’s chosen sport. This exercise happens without an actual opponent present, but may include a trainer. The boxer’s physical plusses and minuses are scrutinized, and then a plan is developed to strengthen areas of vulnerability.
When thinking personally, shadowboxing is also training. To grow personally and spiritually, we need to come face-to-face with our shadows and assess the effects they have on us and others. The goals of shadowboxing are based, in part, on each person’s individual journey. Ultimately, however, the goal is to strengthen character, develop greater authenticity and to embrace a position of grace. Or as an ancient biblical prophet puts it: “…to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God.”*
On that note: for those of us embedded in a spirituality which has God as its center, we are confronted with a subtle temptation. As Sharon Grussendorff writes: “…religion can be a very scary tool for keeping the shadow hidden, and therefore powerful. We are encouraged to be a good model of virtue, to develop the perfect persona, the ‘good person’ image. In fact, I have begun to realize that the very things that are encouraged as ‘good behavior’ by the church, such as virtuousness and disapproval of bad things, can actually be signs that our shadows are winning the power battle, and controlling us.”
This is a reality which I, along with those who have a background in faith and church communities, are encouraged to take seriously. We are easily deceived on this point. Obviously, we don’t condone “poor behavior”, but we’re invited to do our own shadowboxing so that we can actually choose to live more faithfully, and not merely submit to something or check off our good behavior based on rule keeping.
In Part III we’ll have a look at what happens in us when we decide to have a closer look at our shadows with the intention of personal or spiritual growth. In the meantime, if you have questions or thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you. You can reach me here.
* Micah 6:8