That’s the side I never look at. The side scarcely touched by my superficial housework. Where the dust is.
This week, I stuck the duster behind the books, though I didn’t bother to pull them out, and I encountered a slender volume that had shifted into the shadow side. I’ve always believed that if a book literally, physically jumps out at me, I may need to read it. This one had ducked back and hidden from me. I pulled it out. It was Jungian psychologist Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow. I’m Jungian enough to appreciate synchronicity.
I opened it at random and found a chapter that’s an interview with Bly and his editor William Booth. It starts with Booth asking Bly how some ordinary person, a hypothetical woman in a small town in Minnesota without access to a Jungian therapist, might find her shadow. (The shadow, by the way, isn’t necessarily the bad side of the mind, it’s the unacknowledged side, the aspects of ourselves that we have, in Bly’s imagery, stuffed into a bag we carry around on our backs.) In his answer, Bly suggests that this hypothetical ordinary person look where her attention is drawn. Does she tend to think too much about a member of her community that she sees as sexually loose and immoral? Does she find herself obsessing on a member of her PTA who she thinks is fake and dishonest? If these other two women dominate her attention, her shadow may be calling her to look at her own sexuality and at her own level of sincerity and honesty.
In essence, Bly says, to find your shadow, look at what you hate.
That’s different from what you disagree with. It’s quite possible—more so face to face than in social media conversations—to disagree without hatred. I find it valuable to talk with people with whom I disagree so we can stay in a constructive relationship. But I hate yappy dogs that won’t shut up. I’m an extravert, a talker, and I’m persistent as heck. Maybe I need to acknowledge my inner yappy dog. The other day during my outdoor yoga practice between the tennis courts and the college president’s house, the president’s dog objected to my presence exactly at the time I was ready to practice savasana. Deep relaxation. Quietness. What could I do? I focused on the spaces between the barks. Maybe I can do this with my own yapping thoughts. My tendency to object to things.
Back to the book. Bly chose Abraham Lincoln as an example of a well-known person who seemed to have incorporated rather than rejected his shadow. I agree. One thing I admire about Lincoln is how he handled anger. He would write his “hot” letter to the person he was angry with, then put it in a desk drawer. A few days later or whenever he felt calmer and could think more clearly, he would communicate rationally with the individual, never sending the angry letter. He felt anger and expressed it, but processed its meaning rather than lashing out. That’s my reason he seems integrated. Bly gives the illustration of Lincoln’s sense of humor, his ability to laugh at himself and not take offense.
A woman meeting Lincoln on a train told him that he was the ugliest man she had ever set eyes on. Lincoln asked her, “What do you suggest I do about it?” She said, “You could stay home.” He liked her answer and enjoyed telling the story.
Image: Shadow of a dune in Death Valley by Brocken Inaglory