On Our Shadow Side
[Lev.13:1-2, 44-46; 1Cor.10:31-11:1; Mk.1:40-45]
‘Man is not truly one, but truly two,’ Dr Jekyll says in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1868).
Dr Henry Jekyll is the kind and respected scientist who conducts experiments on his shadow side. He tries to control his dark self, ‘Mr Hyde’, but he fails because he underestimates the power of evil. He wreaks havoc on London and in the end, he’s destroyed. [i]
In writing this book, Robert Louis Stevenson understands what psychologists recognise today: that everyone has a shadow side, a dark alter ego they prefer to hide from public view.
We all have personality traits we’d rather not admit to, like our weaknesses, temptations and sins. We tend to hide such things because we perceive them to be bad and we’d rather be seen as good people.
Carl Jung, the Swiss psychoanalyst, was a pioneer in this field. He said that everyone carries a shadow, and the less it’s embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. And if we don’t control this side of ourselves, it will unconsciously influence our thoughts, feelings and actions. [ii]
But how can we control our shadow? It’s by bringing these dark urges out into the light. By acknowledging them and dealing with them honestly (Lk.21:8, 28).
If we don’t do this, we risk our shadow taking control, forcing us into self-destructive behaviours, like Mr Hyde. Perhaps it’s stealing, gambling, drinking, drug-taking, pornography or violent anger. Maybe it’s greed or laziness or resentment. But we know these things are wrong, and we can end up fighting ourselves.
Who wins, though? Is it our conscious personality or our shadow?
Today is the First Sunday of Lent, and every Lent we are given forty days to prepare our hearts and minds for the extraordinary joy of Easter. [iii]
Every year, too, on this day our Gospel reading is about temptation. This year, Mark’s Gospel tells us about Jesus going into the desert for forty days to face his temptations. There, in the bright sunlight, Satan tries to draw Jesus into the dark side (Mt.4:1-11; Lk.4:1-13). However, Jesus holds firm. Helped by the angels, he survives the desert and goes on to preach the good news of God’s kingdom.
But here’s the point: it’s only after facing and rejecting these temptations that Jesus can begin his divine mission.
It’s the same with us. If we are to live our very best lives, we, too, must learn to control these temptations.
That’s why every Lent we are encouraged to follow Jesus into the desert. Not a physical desert, but a spiritual one, a quiet place where we can be alone with Jesus in our hearts. The beauty of the desert is that it’s a place of silence and solitude, where everything slows down, where there are few distractions and where the truth is plain to see.
There in the desert, we’re invited to look honestly at ourselves, to see what needs to change. This is what repentance is all about. It means changing the way we think, feel and do things. It means filling our hearts and minds with the light of Christ, and no longer living in the dark.
To help us achieve this, the Church encourages us to fast, give alms and pray. Each of these actions is a healthy response to our shadow self.
Fasting is giving up something we tend to overdo. It’s bringing some moderation into our lives. It means giving up something that’s clearly not of God, but that too often takes his place in our lives. By cutting back we can redirect our time and energy into something much more positive.
Almsgiving is the way we respond to our self-centeredness. It means focusing on the needs of others, rather than our own selfish desires. It means admitting that life isn’t all about me, and that other people are actually more important.
And finally, Prayer is acknowledging that God is the centre of everything. It’s recognising that the only way to achieve anything in life is with his help (Jn.15:4-5). Genuine prayer unites us to God, and it opens up our hearts, minds and lives to the amazing power of the Holy Spirit.
In his book Yes…And, the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr says that most people focus on denying their shadow self – to keep feeling good about themselves – and their ego then enjoys a perpetual holiday.
‘It’s a massive misplacement of spiritual attention,’ he says. ‘You can (have) a totally inflated ego, while all your energy goes into denying and covering up your shadow – which then gets projected everywhere else. What you don’t transform, you will transmit.’ [iv]
All this represents unfinished business for so many of us.
This Lent, get serious. Ask Jesus to help you tackle your shadow self.
[iii] Lent is 46 days if we include the Sundays.
[iv] Richard Rohr, Yes…And. Franciscan Media, Cincinatti OH. 2013:255.