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A Necessary Negativity

Shadow Work

A Necessary Negativity
Friday, June 18, 2021

True spirituality, that which invites us to ever deeper levels of transformation and love, does not insist on “staying positive” all the time, but on “staying true” to the journey. Drawing on the wisdom of both the Sufi mystical tradition in which she was raised as well as the teachings of Jung and other scholars, author and dreamwork specialist Toko-pa Turner writes about how facing our shadows will benefit us individually and collectively, even as it makes us uncomfortable:

What if [negative emotions] have something essential to communicate to us and each other, and the real problem is the misguided attitude that negative feelings make us less evolved and need fixing? In the same way that we hold others at an arm’s length when they are too different from us, we avoid the inner encounter with otherness, excluding anything that doesn’t fit the image we’ve been building of ourselves.

‘Negative emotions’ don’t cease to exist because we ignore them. They just find other ways to express themselves. Sometimes we lash out inappropriately, having confusing crying fits, or feel protractedly numb. Most commonly, we slip into depression and anxiety. . . .

If not addressed in a person’s life, these issues can harden into ideologies which are then passed down through the generations. When you add to this equation a loud or charismatic leader, movements like Nazism will be born from the corroborative fear of otherness. Nazism was fomented on the notion of a ‘pure race’ and, capitalizing on people’s unintegrated shadows, convincing a nation to murder millions of people who were the unfortunate bearers of this shadow projection. We think of Nazis as evil, but the truth is we all have the potential for this kind of evil, which is ultimately the act of turning away from the suffering of others and ourselves.

Most of us have been raised to be moral, good, and agreeable, putting all of our ‘unacceptable’ qualities in what Robert Bly calls “The Long Black Bag” we drag behind us, or what Jung termed the personal “Shadow.” The Shadow is the place where everything we have forgotten, denied, rejected, or not yet discovered goes to live. [My emphasis—Richard Rohr] But when we try to live up to the impossible image of a spiritually enlightened, knowledgeable, selfless, patient, forgiving, easy-going, supportive, generous superhuman, the dark side of our nature just gains in power. . . .

You always have the choice to turn away or to look for redemption in the shadows. Sometimes turning away is exactly what you need in the moment, especially if you’re tired from toiling down in there. Trust that whatever you decide is the right decision. Also know that if the issue being presented has roots, it will still be there when you’re ready to look at it. . . .

We cannot simply remove the shadow all at once. It takes wisdom, courage, and forbearance for our shadows to reveal themselves to us so they can be faced and dealt with gently, compassionately, and firmly.

Reference:
Toko-pa Turner, Belonging: Remembering Ourselves Home (Her Own Room Press: 2017), 106–107, 127.

Story from Our Community:
Fr. Rohr points out the roadblock that I think limits transformation. We do not accept the shadow side and focus only on the conscious world. As we become aware of our shadows, the divinity waiting there transforms us. Christ’s presence, our healing, and salvation are always taking place in messy parts of life. We have not and never will be abandoned by God. —Ed J.

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, dapple (detail), 2020, photograph, Bellingham.
Image inspiration: Shadows are always influential if not always obvious. Some, in focus in the foreground, are easier to name while others remain hidden in the background. How might we attend to the lessons of our own inner shadow landscapes?
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