Shadow and light
December and the end-of-the-year religious holidays are full of light and hope: We see the light in the ancient stories of the miracle of the oil ablaze in the Temple menorah and the lights of the Advent candles as we anticipate the birth of the divine child. We see the light in our candles at home, in bright smiles, in families gathered, in blessings affirmed. We see the light in citizens and leaders who work to make our community, nation, and world more just, merciful, fair to all.
This time of short days and long nights and the coming cold winter months are also a time of shadow, shadows both visible and metaphorical, but part of our experience as sensing and feeling beings made of mind, body, and spirit.
The shadow is as much a part of our psyche as ego — and both are necessary to be a whole person. Our ego is what enables us to move through the world, to speak and act, to present ourselves as we wish to be seen. Ego is our “psychological clothing,” as one Jungian analyst puts it. The ego is who or what we are. The shadow is the unknown side, the part of us we cannot or choose not to see, what might be called our “dark side” or, in our western religious traditions, our sinful side.
We are born into wholeness, but in our early lives things got separated into good and evil, especially in the Christian tradition. We want to present the “good” of ourselves, driven by ego, which is necessary if we want to live in a civilized society. At the same time, we are taught to suppress the “bad” and place such things in the dark corners of our personalities. The problem is these bad things take on a life of their own and can emerge in unhealthy ways — in the extreme, a deep depression or an uncontrolled rage.
Everyone carries a shadow, lurking in the back corner of our minds. Unless we bring it forward into our active consciousness to be seen, understood, and even appreciated may become a monster.
With some trepidation, I have become aware of the shadow — around me and within me — during this season of light. During my walking meditations among the barren trees and browning landscape, the shadow side of the holidays emerged in me — and I could not resist nor subdue the feeling. I did not push the shadow away but gently welcomed it as a source of wisdom.
I don’t think awareness of the shadow side of ourselves is out of place during this happy holiday time. Let us acknowledge that this time of year, a time of celebration and summing up, can give rise to feelings of pain and loss we have experienced this past year or long ago, the grief of losing a loved one, regrets for harsh words we have spoken and unkind deeds we have done, disappointments at the opportunities we have missed, and guilt for unfortunate choices we have made.
Such feelings, unacknowledged or dismissed, may create suffering and pain within us, or worse, be projected onto others in blame and anger — what is called shadow projection. If we acknowledge and honor these feelings, however, may open to door to the shadow side of our psyche, too long suppressed, to emerge from our dark places into the light of ego. We not only want to acknowledge the shadow within us but see it, honor it, and learn from it. And when the shadow and ego are in balance, we become whole again in mind, body, and spirit.
We can hold a place where both shadow and light meet, each having its say, each contributing to our wholeness of mind and spirit. We can be the dark and the light. We can be the cold, long night and the sunny, joyful day. We can discover a holy joy grounded in our whole being and our whole lives.
If you have gloomy moments during the season of joy, as I do, don’t push them away but neither embrace them too tightly. Let them come, and then sit with them or take them for a walk. As you do, have a conversation between the bright ego and the dark shadow, as the joy of the season joins its voice with the shadow side of our complex lives.
Photo: Yantic Falls/Indian Leap, Norwich, Connecticut