I spent much of my childhood preoccupied with drama, danger and demons. Whether I was running home from the school bus with one eye ever on the lookout for the UFO that was sure to abduct me, or planning a roof-top escape route for my family for when an axe murderer stormed the house to hack us all to pieces, I was prey to a very overactive imagination. What’s more, I suffered endless sleepless nights huddled under the covers convinced that the devil and his minions were out to get me. (I eventually had to talk to a minister about this. No kidding.) It should come as no surprise then, that in 1978 when the movie Star Wars was released, my world was rocked.
The battle of good versus evil as embodied by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader completely captivated me. It resonated with the part of me that was desperate to believe that “good,” is good and “bad” is bad. From where I stand now, I can see that my obsession with the film mirrored my own unconscious drive to be a bonafide goody-two-shoes. But the more I focused on being a good girl, the bigger my fears grew. What I didn’t realize is that the demons under my bed and the axe murdered on the path represented my shadow – my own “dark side” – and they were there precisely because I was trying so hard to push them away.
The term “shadow“ was coined by the psychologist Carl Jung to describe the parts of the self that we try to deny or hide. Although we are born with a full deck of god-given “good” and “bad” qualities, we quickly learn, from our families, friends and the culture at large, which are acceptable and which are not, and mold ourselves accordingly. It works something like this: We saw our brother get yelled at for being too loud, and learned to bury our loudness and become quiet; Mom was disapproving when we said we wanted to be an actor when we grew up, so we killed off our dramatic ambition; The church told us that homosexuality was evil, so we spent a lifetime in the closet. This is not a conscious process, on the contrary - it silently chips away at our psyche without us even realizing it is happening.
I can hear some of you grumbling already, “Yea, but isn’t it “good” to be good?” Liz Green, in her book Relating: An Astrological Guide to Living With Others on a Small Planet (1977) says “It is much more pleasant to think that one is a decent, ‘okay’ sort of fellow – maybe with a few flaws, but basically alright – and much easier also to assume that it is the government, the blacks, the hippies, the Communists, or the foreign immigrants who have created all the evil in the world.” (Forgive the 70’s worldview.) However, that “head in the sand” approach just leaves your backside exposed and poised for a good kick, for the world around you will never stop showing you everything you have tried to deny about yourself.
Jesus advised us to love our neighbors as ourselves. “But,” warns Liz Green, “if you do not love yourself, what will you be capable of doing to your neighbor, vindicated by the self-righteousness of your own judgment?” She continues, “Immaturity is forgivable, even appealing, in a child. But deliberate evasion of psychological adulthood, particularly at the expense of others, does injury to life itself, and is perhaps, in the final analysis, the true meaning of sin.”
Back to Star Wars. Remember how poignant was the moment when Luke Skywalker discovered that the Evil Lord Vader was, in fact, not the monster he’d been made out to be, but his own father? Beneath the pomp and posturing in his big black cape and scary helmet he was a weak and vulnerable old man. (Ah, the gasp that went through the crowd and my heart at that moment!) Redemption arrived with the unmasking of a rouse. In that instant Luke felt love for Vader – all was forgiven. It’s very like the process we are all called to do when we explore and discover and ultimately learn to love our own ‘dark side.” As Jung said, “We are obliged to struggle with evil, confront the shadow, to integrate the devil. There is no other choice.”
With Halloween around the corner we will be confronted with little monsters and ghouls on every corner. I’m going to let them be a reminder that there are still demons lurking in my own psyche that I have not yet made peace with. I invite you to do the same.
(If you would like to learn more about your shadow, I highly recommend reading The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford or the Liz Green book referenced above.)