The Learned Man and His Shadow
Hans Christian Anderson tells the story of “learned man” who moved from a cold country to a hot one, where he became listless, shrunken from the heat. It seemed his shadow also contracted, becoming smaller than it was in that stark, cold land where they’d come from.
In the evening, though, as the sun went down, and the air cooled, and the lanterns were lit, the shadow spread onto the walls, coming to life again.
On these evenings, from a home across the courtyard, the learned man could hear music. He never saw anyone there. Flowers grew, radiant and riotous, so he knew someone tended them, but no person ever appeared. No person ever made a sound except to play that beautiful melody, the same one, over and over, yet so mesmerizing, he never grew tired of it.
One night, a brilliant flash of light woke him from a deep sleep. As he opened his eyes, he seemed to see a woman across the way. Then, just as suddenly, she and the light were gone. Going out onto his balcony, he heard the music was playing, but could see no one. Looking closer to try and figure out who lived there, he saw there was no proper entrance to the house. How did one get in?
What he did see, though, was his shadow, big and bold, draped across the walls of the home. When the man moved, so did the shadow. It seemed to be alive.
“Now if only the shadow was sharp enough to go in,” he said aloud, “and look about and then come and tell me what it saw!” So he told his shadow to go on into the woman’s house and look around. “[B]ut don’t stay away!” he said. 
Disowning Our Shadow
He meant his words as a joke, but as he turned to go into his bedroom, his shadow turned as well, but not in the man’s direction. Instead, the shadow climbed onto the neighbor’s balcony and floated in through the window. In this way, the man freed himself from his shadow.
When we manage to shed our shadow, it doesn’t really go away. Instead, it grows. That’s what happened in Anderson’s story. In the neighbor’s house, the shadow met the woman. Her name was Poetry. With words and music, she taught the shadow its “innermost nature,” and it “became a man.” 
Freed from its moorings, the shadow began to solidify. At night, it crawled up walls throughout the town and peeped in windows and listened to stories. It heard the secret things we try to keep from the world.
Having no evil in itself – for was it not but an innocent shadow? – it could judge and shame those on whom it spied. To assure the shadow’s silence, those haunted souls paid him in clothes and professorships and gold. Soon, the shadow was rich. And so it grew, and grew, and grew.
The man, in the meantime, discovered the loss of his shadow. For a little while, he tried to entice it back, but it was no good. His shadow would not be imprisoned again. This inconvenienced the man, for he didn’t dare let anyone know, but he managed to get by, and soon enough, a new shadow grew from the stub of the old one. Perhaps this second shadow was not as big, but the man was content.
The Shadow Returns
“So the learned man came home and wrote books about what there was of truth and goodness and beauty in the world.”  Perhaps because he didn’t take to his new shadow as well as he had his first one, he also disdained the ugly things of life. It is so much more pleasant to focus on the good and the beautiful. Why would one look at anything else if one didn’t have to?
And so it went for the man, for days, and months, and years. No one forced him to look at anything he didn’t like. Until, one day, his shadow returned. After all, we can’t avoid our shadow forever.
The man and the shadow had an amiable reunion. The shadow told him how he’d fared, how he’d earned money. And he told the man of the woman, Poetry. For a while, all was lovely between them. Then the shadow convinced the man to travel with him, not as a fellow person, but as the shadow’s shadow.
Eventually, the shadow became “as fortunate and powerful as anyone can be.”  It convinced a princess to marry it, and when the man complained, the shadow had him executed. The shadow overwhelmed the man and destroyed him. This is what happens when we fail to recognize the shadow within us. It takes control. It manipulates the world and calls itself righteous. When it does this, it can kill us all.
Externalizing Our Shadow
We tend to externalize our shadow side. This is the part of us we don’t like, the part we’re ashamed of. Especially when we are taught that sin is intolerable or failure unacceptable, we dare not admit we have any impurities or imperfections.
Denying them, however, doesn’t make them go away. Instead, it makes them more powerful, like the shadow in Anderson’s story. Lying in the darkness where we can’t see them, our impurities and imperfections control us. Whenever something threatens to reveal the truth of who we are, we protect ourselves by seeing, not the log in our own eye, but the moat in others. Blind to our own faults, we see them clearly in everyone else. Then we feel justified in punishing them or hating them in the name of righteousness and divine wrath. Whether we are trying to take over the Capitol or tearing down Confederate statues, we are expressing our anger, and we may be externalizing our shadow, as well.
Of course, expressing anger is not always bad. If we think it is, we’ve probably created a shadow out of our rage. We do need to stand up for fairness and equity and love, and some causes are more just than others. It is possible to be righteous rather than self-righteous. But it is so easy to scapegoat, to see evil outside us and ignore the evil within. It’s possible we’re not as innocent as we think.
Our desperate need to believe in our own innocence is a kind of dissociation. Like the man in Anderson’s story, we try to separate ourselves from our shadow, from the possibility that we are wrong or bad or confused. This separation is itself a kind of evil.
The Pain We Carry
The Buddhist writer, Stephen Batchelor, explains that evil is numbness, isolation, dissociation. The externalized forms of evil – Mara In Buddhism, Satan in the religions of the book – are beings who cannot engage in community, in relationship, in joy. They reject intimacy. If God is life, if God is connection, the Devil is the opposite. Indeed, as Batchelor puts it, Mara and Satan are “banished from life itself.” 
When we refuse to face our own shadow, we, too, become numb, isolated, and separated from all that is joyful and life-giving. Because of its nature, evil does not allow for friendship, so we become alienated and alone. We can’t admit that, however, because that would mean admitting we weren’t perfect, so we engage in relationships. The relationships that evil engages in, however, are self-serving and manipulative. Unable to face our shadow, we use other people as scapegoats, punishing them for the faults we refuse to accept in ourselves.
Most of us can imagine how terrible that must be, to act out of anger and spite, to be isolated and alone. At least, we can see that in the demon. We are less adept at seeing how we avoid intimacy, manipulate others, and turn away from life.
You might think you don’t do this, that you don’t use people or judge them, that you don’t try to hide from your own faults. After all, you know you’re not perfect. To some degree, however, we all have pain we don’t want to see. We all project our own fears, resentments, and misery onto others. No matter how well we know ourselves, we have some shadows we can’t acknowledge. Those are the ones we see in others.
The Terrible Things We Do
Recently, I spent some time with a patient who had excruciating back pain. Nerve spasms shot down her leg. At times, all she could do was hold onto the bed and breathe. She had been hurting this way for days and felt exhausted.
At times, though, the pain would ease up enough she could focus, make jokes, carry on a conversation. In between bouts of agony, she told me of the abuse she experienced as a child, the distance that created between her and her parents, the resentment that festered among her siblings. For a while, she had used alcohol to numb her past, but that didn’t work very well, so she eventually stopped drinking. The judgments she expressed testified to continued hurts, but some of her wounds had clearly healed.
Then she shared with me a terrible thing she had done as a young mother. In an effort to stop the pattern of abuse in her family, she caused more trauma rather than less. Hers was not the worst story I’ve ever heard, but I could see why it caused her shame, but she had done the best she knew how. No one had taught her to be a good parent.
Something in the sharing of her story seemed to release a hidden hurt. Perhaps it was the first time she’d told it. By itself, that can be healing. Or maybe the release had something to do with my patient presence, my compassionate gaze that didn’t waver even during the surprising and ugly parts. Though she revealed a shadow part of her, something she tried to hide, from others if not from herself, I honored that shadow. I heard the hurt she had perpetrated, even acknowledged she had done wrong, yet I respected and cared for her anyway.
The Healing Nature of Shadows
After telling her tale, she seemed to relax. The wounds of our soul are reflected in our bodies. We hold onto to our hurts in throat and gut and groin. That doesn’t mean all our physical ailments are caused by emotional trauma. It does mean that emotional trauma can make our ailments worse. When we honor the shadow within us, some of that hurt heals. Then we will no longer be banished from community. We can return to life.
In that moment so long ago when this woman did that terrible thing, she was seeing in her own child the evil she had internalized from what her parents had done to her. As an adult, she externalized that evil, seeing it in her child, instead of in herself. Up to that point in her life, she hadn’t been able to face the hurt she felt as a little girl, so, even though she had meant to keep from passing that legacy down to her children, that is exactly what she did. The shadow side of herself that she tried to ignore controlled her. It caused her to do what she knew was wrong.
At least she realized she had done wrong. She was sorry. Some people are so invested in their goodness and purity, that they refuse to acknowledge the wrong they do. They justify their evil by making of the other person an enemy.
Our Animal Nature
What we hate in others is what we hate in ourselves. That varies from person to person. Perhaps we cannot tolerate our sexual desires, so punish those who express their sexuality. We may despise our lust for power, our vulnerability, our neediness. Our parents may have taught us that emotions were wrong, that it was never okay to be sad or angry, or we might have been punished for being lazy or thoughtless or stupid, so we can’t stand it when we see those things in others. From religious school, we might have learned we must always be generous, accepting, forgiving, so when we feel selfish, intolerant, or revengeful, we must project those feelings onto others and judge them instead.
According to Ernest Becker, the core of our efforts to escape the shadow in our own psyche comes from our fear of sickness and death. We are mortal, and we hate that. That’s why we deny our “animal side,” because in the natural world, the truth of mortality is stark.  If we accept that we are part of the natural world, we cannot hide from who we really are. To be part of the natural world means we are humble, emotional, sexual beings no better than the mindless creatures who run and fly and swim. For the evil, this is not acceptable. The evil person must believe they are pure.
If we have to be pure, then all those nasty, ugly things that reside within us must be projected somewhere. How better to do this than to personify evil, to turn it into a Mara or a Satan? If there’s a devil, then we can ignore that log in our eye because we know it belongs to Satan. We can deny the stream of thoughts that murmur in the background of our minds, telling us of our shame, blaming us for being human, because we know it’s only Mara talking. By putting our pain and suffering on some disembodied, despicable entity like a demon, we absolve ourselves.
Loving the Enemy Within
Yet it’s dangerous to refuse to face our shadow side, to project it onto the world. If we can do that, then we can justify any evil we do to that despicable world. That’s why a belief in a real, breathing, rebellious Satan easily leads to a belief in the perfidy of the earth, of women, of Jews, Indians, Blacks, the disabled, anyone the believer wants to despise. This disconnect from our inner self has led to global warming, wars, pogroms, witch hunts, lynchings, and genocide.
To stop this cycle, we must accept we all have the capacity within us to do evil. Andrew Bard Schmookler tells a Hassidic story of a rabbi’s son who, while away from home on the Sabbath, worshiped in the synagogue there. When he returned home, his father asked him if, in that town, they did things differently.
The son said they did.
What was the lesson he learned? the father wanted to know.
“Love thy enemy as thyself,” the young man said.
That did not seem so different to the rabbi. He also taught that lesson. “And how is it you learned something new?” he asked.
The young man answered, “They taught me to love the enemy within myself.” 
If we are to stop scapegoating our enemies, stop shaming one another, arguing without listening, staging coups, demanding tests of purity, we must learn to love the enemy within us. We must face our capacity to do evil. As Schmookler puts it, we must “make peace with our shadow.” 
The Magic of Listening
There is magic in listening. I’m not talking about the casual way we pay attention to a friend’s description of her day at work or the way we listen when we’re framing a rebuttal. I’m talking about the kind of listening that allows a deep, personal story to unfold like a flower. This listening waits in stillness for the words to form. It hears with compassion and loving acceptance. To listen in this way, we must recognize our own shadow. We must see it and embrace it. To listen so deeply that healing can occur, we need to let go of our expectations, our agenda, our hope for the discussion, and allow them to fade away.
Then, when the story is finished, we need to reflect back the kernel of the speaker’s offering so the seed can stand naked in the light, no longer a shadow hidden, but a shadow seen. This is the moment when change is made possible. When the shadow becomes known, reality shifts. Then we can see our shame and longing for what they are: emotions, pieces of being human, thoughts. Nothing more.
Living in Peace
When we can listen to one another in this way, we no longer need to externalize our demons. We will be able to, as Schmookler puts it, deal with the evil within us and each other “in human terms.”  It is hard to do this. It can be painful and humbling. To honor our pain, our deep humanity, is a spiritual task, one that forces us to face life, death, sex, birth, all the rich, warm, human, emotional, and messy pieces of ourselves and the world. Instead of seeing them as sinful and trying to eradicate them from everyone around us in some vain hope of proving how good and righteous we are, we can accept our complexity as beings who are both sinful and divine.
God and Satan both reside within us. We are capable of incredible goodness and terrible evil. But that’s okay, as long as we accept it. Though we will never see into every dark crevice of our spirits, when we can face at least some of our shadow side, then we develop the capacity to choose how to respond. When we can stop seeing the other as the enemy, then we can live with one another in peace.
In faith and fondness,
- Anderson, Hans Christian, “The Shadow,” London: Faber & Faber, 1953, https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/andersen-shadow/andersen-shadow-00-h.html, accessed 4/22/21.
- Batchelor, Stephen, Living with the Devil: A Meditation on Good and Evil, New York: Riverhead, 2004, 139.
- Becker, Ernest, “The Basic Dynamic of Human Evil,” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, eds., New York: Penguin, 1991, 180-186, 186.
- Schmookler, Andrew Bard, “Acknowledging Our Inner Split,” Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, eds., New York: Penguin, 1991, 189-194, 190.
- Ibid 189.
- Ibid 190.
Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash
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