I’m in the US again. This morning, I turned on the TV and caught a news report that featured a bunch of alarmingly imbalanced Pennsylvanians waving a fat rodent about. Today is Groundhog Day. The tradition is that when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on the 2nd of February, if it can see its shadow it will be wintry weather for another six weeks. If it is a dull day and there is no shadow, spring will come quickly. As I watched the news, I thought, I bet that beefy rat could give someone a decent nip and surprised myself by watching it to the end in the hope that someone would get munched.
It got me thinking about shadows.
Groundhog Day logic is simple:
see the shadow, winter lasts longer, bad outcome;
don’t see the shadow, spring comes sooner, good outcome.
I love pagan superstition as much as the next post-evangelical Christian but in this case, I disagreed with the logic. I think noticing shadows is entirely positive.
These last few years I’ve thought about this subject a lot. In psycho-therapy, the shadow contains the parts of our personality that we don’t want anyone to see: the shameful traits we have learned to deny. It can occasionally contain positive traits but often it is envy, hatred, twistedness, perversion and other vices that we dump in there; in the dark; hopefully hidden long enough for us to forget them.
What I find intriguing is that when I teach rackets or bioenergetics, theories which expose shadow, the session is invariably followed by increased humour, connectedness and teach-ability in the delegates. When it is made easy for people to see their culpability in relationship dysfunction or their contribution to cultural toxicity, they become grounded, less defensive and more fun to be around.
Why would this be true? What about sackcloth and ashes? What about reputation, social currency and guilt? Why would people feel better for admitting their twisted games?
I think there are two main reasons why observation of the shadow brings catharsis:
Awareness is liberating. The shadow causes us to twist reality by projecting unseen elements of our own psyche onto the external world. It’s like having coloured lenses in our glasses. If I am in denial about the fact that my lenses are red, I think the world is red. Likewise, if I am angry inside and don’t realise it, I think everyone around me is annoying. Seeing reality for what it is, feels like stepping out of a trance. The clarity of vision makes the world feel brighter.
Wholeness brings healing. Every part of us belongs. Carving off aspects of our character, making them wrong then hiding them away causes us pain. Observation is not inert and when we regard bits of us as shameful, these parts recoil, become fetid and eventually hurt us. Re-integrating these parts back into our personality and finding a presentable narrative for them, allows us to become whole. Rather than clipped, defensive people who fear being seen, we become engaging, relaxed and accepting. Healing is the eradication of fear from any situation.
While writing this, I scanned down the TV channels to see what was on tonight. I noticed that the Bill Murray movie, Groundhog Day was playing. It’s been a while since I watched it but if I remember right, it is about a journalist who relives the same day again and again, trying to play it differently, trying to win the girl.
Recalling the movie, made me realise the main reason people feel alive after facing down their shadows. They step off the hamster wheel of old repeating battles; they abandon familiar defences; they crumple up the old scripts. Suddenly they are present with their spontaneous emotions; alive to whatever reality emerges. They are awake to the surprising, disturbing, chaotic truth and it feels liberating.
Carl Jung says that 90% of the shadow is pure gold. Maybe. Or maybe sunshine makes everything glisten. Standing in the light, as a witness to our whole self, means we can see our inner orphans again and we can adopt them. We can also reflect the light onto our circumstances, embrace reality for what it is and stop wrestling with demons of our own making.
And now that we’re talking, I wonder what positive contribution that little shadow bastard inside me wants to make. What gifts does he have, other than being able to enjoy watching people (who frankly could use the help) being bitten by a big rat?