Irritability surged to prickle on my skin. Anger burned on my tongue. Frustration drew my shoulders closer to my ears as my arms crossed in front of my stomach.
Almost as if time stopped for a moment, I stepped above myself to take in the scene. My eyes were narrowed in on my target. My mouth was contorted around words that must taste sour. My posture communicated pure aggression. But why?
When I sit with someone in spiritual direction and they share a story of a behavior that is out of character for them, we do some backstory digging together. A fundamental rule of my spiritual direction training was that I never ask someone to experience something in direction that I haven’t done myself. So, I would ask you to please indulge the following self-analysis. It is the most honest way I know to talk about shadow, the darker sides of ourselves. Some might call it the sinful nature or unredeemed parts of our being. I seek to stay grounded in God’s overwhelming love so that we can be fully honest, with each other and with ourselves.
I am not usually someone who will express or even experience anger. I try my best to avoid being angry or if necessary, keep anger locked down inside myself. In the out-of-body sort of moment described above, I wondered why anger boiled barely beneath the surface of my being. I felt like a volcano spitting out threatening ash. “Warning!” my behavior screamed, “Eruption is coming!”
I am a peace-loving person. I like my world to be serene, calm, turquoise blue. I prefer quiet-spoken people floating down a lazy river of life that leaves space for reflection and deep conversation in beautiful places. Lately, I am learning that if my outer circumstances don’t match these desires, I will attempt to squash, bury, or just “forget” that there is such conflict between my inner and outer life. After all, things can’t always be the way that I prefer them. So, I just ignore that I don’t like it. That’s what adults do, right? Mature people deal when their preferences aren’t catered to.
Yes, and no.
Yes, adults won’t always get what they want and they can’t throw a fit each time. Yes, adults must handle life in all its complexity. That is what maturity requires.
But also no. Adults don’t just forget or ignore the tension. They must learn to hold differences and respect them. Maturity also requires a tolerance of dissonance.
Unlike Peter Pan, we never need Wendy to sew our shadows back on; our shadow follows us everywhere we go. Talking about shadow is full of all kinds of subtlety for which my logical religious and moral training doesn’t have space. However, I believe the language of shadow can clarify our behaviors. It is even present in Paul’s writing in Romans 7:15. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
For me, peacemaking and conflict avoidance are two sides of the same coin. True peace is a difficult tension that is sought and held together with hard work. Too often in my own life, I choose to ignore or forget a situation or person where true peace is needed; I just avoid it. That is my shadow at work, the other side of my peace-loving self that forgets the good in honest tension. So how does a person go about stalking their shadow?
First, behavior and emotions that are out of character for you are like the “check engine” light in your car. Pay attention when it lights up! Sit and notice. For instance, I get angry when I have tried to avoid too many conflicts for too long. And instead of dealing with one of them, I tend to blow up at something unrelated. Shadow stalking, paying prayerful active attention, over a long period of time would help me notice the check engine light before I let anger do the talking for me.
Second, motivation matters. Doing externally good things with selfish motives is not mature behavior. If I avoid a conflict because I pretend it will be painful for the other person, that doesn’t own that it will also be painful for me and that my behavior is self-protecting.
Truthfully, I believe we haven’t done much teaching about shadow in church settings because my self-protecting behavior may look different than yours. It’s easy to say that you don’t avoid conflict so maybe you don’t have a shadow. But the truth is that our shadows protect us in tricky whispers that can fool the majority for a lifetime. So why try to communicate it here? Why would anyone want or need to stalk their shadow?
Without work, our shadow drives us.
Our anger-filled world, country, internet, and churches need to be able to wonder, “Am I doing or saying _______________________ to protect my own self-interest?”
Only with this kind of mature honesty can a true, if dissonant, peace that passes all understanding guard our hearts.
Rhesa Higgins is a spiritual director and experienced retreat leader. She holds a B.S. from ACU in youth and family ministry and is a graduate of HeartPaths, a three-year program in spiritual formation and direction. Rhesa serves as the founding Director for eleven:28 ministries (www.eleven28ministries.org) in Dallas, Texas, a non-profit dedicated to supporting the spiritual vitality of ministers. Rhesa is also a partner with Hope Network. She is married to Chad and together they are raising their three kids. Rhesa loves good coffee, dark chocolate, baseball, theatre, and most any good book.