on befriending the dark side

Everyone’s talking about ‘befriending your shadow side’ these days. I heard it at a Christian prayer retreat and it’s still puzzling me. It would be more likely from the therapist’s couch, you might have thought. I know Darth Vader is redeemed eventually, and all, but wasn’t he a baddie? It’s all very confusing.

Talk of the shadow side is common in personal growth, and surely personal and spiritual growth should go hand in hand? I think we instinctively know that. So when you meet a ‘Christian’, or any religious person, who is harsh, judgmental, unloving and unforgiving, we know that something has gone terribly wrong.

But are there areas of the personal growth narrative that jar with Christianity? I’ve been having some jarring with ‘befriend your shadow side’, I have to admit.

Take St. Paul. He writes honestly of ‘the evil I do not want to do’ and ‘the good I want to do’ (but can’t). It’s like there’s a battle raging within (Romans 7). All the great saints seem to have wrestled a lot more stringently with the darker side of themselves than I ever have. And they were holier then me…I thought a battle was normal, with the good side winning?

The redeemed Paul struggles to slough off the old Saul, and it will surely take a lifetime, despite his amazing Damascus Road experience. In what way, if any, is he ‘befriending his shadow’? I just can’t see him sitting around ‘befriending’ the dark side of himself, somehow. How do you befriend your violence? Surely you just cut it out, quit it. Period. But maybe it’s not that simple…Violence may start with a little irritation only…

Of course St. Paul did live some time before Jung. In Jungian psychology the concept of the shadow side appears to refer to the bits of your personality that you have repressed in order to be acceptable, in the family and in society, which need to be be brought into the light and made part of you again. Hence befriending.

According to Jung, we were all born with the entire range of human emotions and reactions at our disposal but various strictures come in sooner or later which act like powerful signals regarding what is acceptable and what is not. For example the child learns to repress anger, as ‘we don’t do that in this family’, or to repress outward grief: ‘big boys don’t cry’. Or even spontaneity: ‘I’ve told you not to shout out; put your hand up’ etc.

Now these strictures are actually important in creating frameworks early on – for example, discipline in the home, the school, the work place and in society, without which we would have anarchy. But they’re only the outer casing. Real spiritual/inner life comes through some other way, which has to be everyone’s own discovery, sooner or later.

But as strictures and frameworks form, we learn to be ashamed of various bits of us. In addition the mistakes our carers inevitably make, and losses incurred early on, impact the way we’re shaped. The bits of us we were ashamed of, we put away, using them less and less, and gradually our personality takes shape.

We use defence mechanisms to keep us safe from the chaos of life and these become both our natural state (personality) but also our besetting sin. This is roughly what I understand the Enneagram to teach.

So some people come through childhood as gregarious and outgoing, loud and carefree, while others are reserved, crave solitude and feel tired out by constant conversation. Some families prize emotional honesty, some quiet reflective thought. Some are spontaneous and some are planners. And so it goes on.

As Christians we’re being transformed into the likeness of Christ, the old nature giving way to the new (2 Corinthians 5:17). Weekly in collective worship we say the Confession, admitting that we are not all we could be and we don’t always collaborate with the transforming God. We make wrong choices and we are apathetic about the good of others.

This is called confessing sin and receiving forgiveness. It happens weekly in churches across the world and has done so since the earliest Christian communities took shape. Following the Book of Common Prayer, our sins may even have the effect of ‘provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us’. It seems a far cry from ‘befriending your shadow’.

But maybe the shadow has nothing to do with sin and confession. Maybe it’s the bits of me I’m not used to drawing on, psychologically, and which it would be good to do, especially as I get older (and, one might hope, wiser).

This seems to be the thought behind Richard Rohr’s teaching on second half of life spirituality, along with the idea that the ways we’ve traditionally defended ourselves against pain and chaos, begin to be inadequate, and that we only grow by sloughing these off, and finding that mistakes and failure are our best teachers.

And this rings true. There’s nothing worse than an older person who gets more and more ‘set in their ways’. Much more exciting to still be growing and discovering new bits of you, even if it feels uncomfortable. My two grandmothers, Marjorie and Kathleen (born 1900 and 1913 respectively) wonderfully modelled this to me; they never came across as stuck, or backwards looking, even in their late nineties.

What is it that holds me back from becoming more whole (one)? Usually we value some personality traits higher than others, and it may feel weird to embrace your deepest emotions, for instance, where your rational mind has served you well for 50+ years. But it might represent your redemption in some way. Is it ‘natural’ for you to mainly think, not feel? Or is it your sin?

The interplay of psychology and theology doesn’t always weave seamlessly.

I can see why Jung held integration (oneness) as the pinnacle of human development though. It stands to reason that if you repress an uncomfortable side of you, say, anger – one day it’s going to erupt uncontrollably, and hurt everyone. We’ve all read stories of the troubled young man who went out one morning and violently took innocent lives while his bemused relations at home comment, ‘he was just a normal family man…’

I think essentially my worry about befriending talk is that it’s theological endpoint seems to be oneness. Oneness sounds great, but if you take oneness to a New Age type conclusion, you get (Christian?) universalism, which I’m not quite ready for, despite the enthusiasm of some Christian writers (Dennis and Sheila Linn, for example, whose wonderful Ignatian insights I otherwise greatly admire).

I want everyone to be eventually ‘saved’, of course, and I want to affirm, with Rob Bell, that ‘Love Wins’. But…sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, weeping and wailing, heaven and hell, etc.

Maybe my leap from Jungian psychology to eschatology is one too far. But for me it would seem that some dichotomies are awfully difficult to resolve.





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