Glimpsing our Shadows




“If we could see our shadow,
we would be immune to any
moral and mental infection.”
Carl Jung


Care to hear a minister confess? My life has sometimes been a mess. Into the shadows I occasionally regress.

We all project a shadow. No, I refer not to the silhouette that ensues as we stride toward sunshine. I speak of the shadow in our personality. This is more than a collection of benign “blind spots.” The dark side of our humanity is often reflected in our brokenness with others.

In September, 1984, I begin Clinical Pastoral Education, a training program for ministers. A recent seminary graduate, I had studied pastoral counseling. Yet there is so much more to learn! Working with adult psychiatric patients, I discover aspects of my own shadow—and how this affects my work with patients, medical staff and other chaplains.

During my year at Georgia Mental Health Institute (GMHI), I learn that my passion for social justice is prompted in part by childhood experiences with an alcoholic father. As this dark period is brought to light, I begin to recognize how my own neediness interferes with my pastoral care for patients and staff. Ministers are wounded healers; we must recognize and redeem our pain.

The paradox is that striving for social justice can lead me to be unjust. I have strong opinions regarding right and wrong, so my fellow chaplains confront my tendency to be judgmental. Thus, one of my growing edges throughout this academic year is attending to my own experiences of injustice. As I get in touch with my anger, I learn to let go of it. As I experience God’s grace, I am better able to express grace toward others.

Another part of my shadow is my lack of trust for authority figures. After several weeks, I trust my chaplain supervisor, Kempton Haynes, enough to admit my fears. My vulnerability is rewarded. Because of my supervisor’s care, I learn to be more trusting. I am also freed to explore how to appropriately claim my own authority.

Peacemakers have an archetypal warrior as part of their shadow. I am no exception. “Fighting for peace” is ironic, but it also expresses the truth that even a holy passion can become destructive. In my year at GMHI, I learn that peacemaking must be the method, but peace may not result. Sometimes, instead of persistent attempts to defuse differences with staff, I must learn to accept the tension of unresolved conflict.

In this year of discovery, I must also face my impatience. An elderly woman with paranoid schizophrenia, “Pauline,” is slow to speak. We sit together in silence in the lounge on several occasions for ten or fifteen minutes. Initially, this appears pointless but eventually she begins to talk. Kempton reminds me that “being” is as important as “doing.” Just being there—the ministry of presence—is what some patients need most.

Similarly, I learn from a man with bipolar illness that it is sometimes helpful not to help. “Jerry” makes occasional threats that cannot be taken personally. Instead of giving him what he wants, it is more caring to firmly deny his demands. Jerry needs boundaries and, as I increasingly realize through my work, my boundaries can also be tighter. Sometimes, I need to “become smaller” by listening more and talking less.

Twenty years later, these issues still require some attention. As one wise counselor commented, personal issues may spiral downward but they never disappear.

All of us have growing edges. All of us have shortcomings which require more vision, more patience, more humility and more grace toward others. All of us have blind spots and, to our chagrin, our best instructors in perceiving them are often friends and foes who confront us!

May God enable us to glimpse our shadow. May God bless our efforts to confront the pain that persists in unredeemed darkness. Through our discoveries in community and our contemplations and confessions, may we experience the healing God intends for each of us.

©2005 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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