The Franciscan priest and teacher, Richard Rohr, often writes and speaks about what he calls The Shadow Self. The Shadow Self is a concept that originally shows up in the work of Carl Jung. Rohr and his colleagues have developed and evolved it further. What they are referring to when they speak of the Shadow Self is that part of ourselves or that part of our culture or society that we struggle to see, that we consciously or unconsciously keep out of the light, that we hide or deny.
One of the big ways, Rohr and friends suggest, that we can discover the nature of our Shadow Selves is to pay attention those things that sadden or frustrate or anger us in other people: we are frequently most upset when we encounter someone who, whether we realize it or not, is holding up a mirror to us or to the tribe to which we belong. Think, for instance (and this has showed up so often in the news in the last ten or fifteen years that it has almost become a cliché), about the violently homophobic pastor who turns out to be gay. Think about soldier at war whose love for his country and hatred of his enemy is almost perfectly duplicated in the one against whom he fights. Think about you and me when, in a time of conflict in our family or at work or at church, the person who really gets our goat turns out to be suspiciously similar to us in our tendency towards sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness or triangulation or whatever. Think about – well, think about just about anything in this political season, and the bile that we direct towards those who intend to vote differently that we do.
Think about what the people whom we don’t like have to teach us.
Rohr and his friends are keen to emphasize two things about our Shadow Selves. First, our Shadow Selves aren’t something that we can get rid of. They aren’t devils sitting on our shoulders that we can exorcise. To the contrary, having a Shadow Self is an inescapable feature of being alive. To be human means that, when you go out in the sun, you will cast a shadow.
Second, our Shadow Selves, in and of themselves, aren’t evil or broken. Rather, they are necessary and integral components of our personalities, sometimes even of our very best qualities. Being stubborn or inflexible is often the shadow side of being determined or committed; being distant or aloof can be the shadow side of being calm; being a pushover is sometimes the shadow side of being compassionate; being impatient or judgmental can be the shadow side of having a passion for justice. Rohr puts it this way: Our shadow selves aren’t evil. But they can allow us to do evil without noticing it or naming it. Our task, therefore, is to become aware of our Shadow Selves, to shine a light upon them.
Across his ministry, Jesus tells stories about our Shadow Selves. Jesus is talking about the Shadow Self when he says that we complain about the specks in other people’s eyes but we can’t see the logs in our own eyes. He is talking about it when he tells the story of the religious official who goes to the Temple and prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people”; Jesus then contrasts him with the tax collector who looks straight at his shadow, who wrestles with it, who says, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” And he is talking about it today when he tells the crowd a folktale about a wealthy man who is planning on building the best barns ever.
The lead character in Jesus’ folk tale doesn’t have a name. When students of the Bible speak of him, they refer to him by the title that God gives him at the story’s end: this is The Rich Fool. Notwithstanding this pejorative name – and notwithstanding the reality that The Rich Fool is a type or even a caricature– there is actually lots that is good about him, there are a lot of things about him that I like.
I like the way that he gets out his graph paper and dreams up plans for barns. I like his imagination, his enthusiasm for the future, his optimism. I like his goal of relaxing; of eating, drinking, and being merry. (I’m about to go on vacation: my calendar for the next two weeks says, “Eat, drink, and be merry.”) I like that he talks to himself, that if you see him walking down the street on his own, there is a good chance that you will notice his lips moving. And I love – love – that he has a name for himself: it is evidence of Jesus’ comedic brilliance that, in the middle of the Rich Fool’s self-directed monologue, Jesus has him lovingly address himself as “Soul.” You can picture him hugging himself as he speaks these words
But – and like every folk tale, there is a “but,” there is a moral to Jesus’ story – because the Rich Fool is entirely unaware of his own shadow, he allows his really good characteristics to manifest in really destructive ways. He allows his imagination and his optimism and his love of himself – all of them laudable and important characteristics, in and of themselves – to turn him entirely inward, to make him smaller. Notice that the Rich Fool’s every sentence contains either the word “I” or his name for himself, “Soul.” Notice that his plans are thoroughly selfish: Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”: the Rich Fool’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What am I doing for me?” As he stocks his overflowing barns, he makes no mention of anyone else.
There is an aphorism that says that sin is its own punishment. And it seems to me that we see that truth illustrated in the Rich Fool’s life. Because while we may deduce that the Rich Fool isn’t the best neighbour, that his radical self-absorption makes him kind of exhausting and boring to be around, that he takes more from his community than he gives to it, the deep and real cost of the Fool’s way of being in the world is to the Fool himself. Because, in his frantic efforts to accumulate money and stuff (and this is the moment when it becomes apparent that Jesus’ story could have been written yesterday) he has utterly lost track of the reality that his life is precious and fleeting, that he is called to live with holy urgency. Listen to what God says at the story’s end:
You’re going to die. You’re going to die way sooner than you think. You’ve got the biggest and best barns in the neighbourhood. You have three cars. You have a flatscreen TV in every room. And tonight, tonight the heart attack or the accident or the galloping undiagnosed infection is going to cut you down.
When that happens, what are you going to with all that stuff?
Over the last few weeks, we have been reading through the Gospel of Luke more or less in the same order that it is found in scripture. A couple of week back we heard that celebrated parable that we know as The Good Samaritan. Last week, we heard the disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” And I’d like to suggest that Jesus gives us the folk tale of the Rich Fool in light of those previous readings. Contrast the Samaritan, who is turned outwards towards his neighbour, with the Rich Fool, who is turned inwards, towards himself. Contrast the prayer that Jesus teaches us, which is addressed to the Father, with the prayer of the Rich Fool, which is addressed to his own soul.
The late physician and writer, Oliver Sacks, tells the story of a patient who was struggling to sleep. She was haunted by a dream night after night in which she was chased by a monster. She ran from that monster in terror.
So Sacks asked his patient: What does the monster look like?
The patient explained that, as she ran, she had never turned around to look.
And so Sacks said: Next time, look. Look at the monster. And the patient said that she would.
Sacks doesn’t tell us what the patient saw when she turned around and looked. But he does say that she never had the dream again.
Confronting our shadow selves is as amazingly difficult and as amazingly simple as turning around and looking at the monster. Like a lot of Christianity, like a lot of being alive, there is nothing particularly complex about this work. And nor is there anything easy about it. It is work that we can only do in community. It is work that we can only do with God’s help.
Because it is so hard, it is tempting to put this work off, to postpone it indefinitely. As long as we focus on building more and bigger barns, we can maintain the illusion that we are safe and that we are in control, that death is distant, that running out of time is something that happens to other people, that we have years and years to eat, drink, and be merry.
But fighting through the temptation is worth it. There is joy in fighting through it, in escaping the illusion, in telling the truth, in turning outwards.
Shining a light on our shadow selves frees us. It frees us to discover a whole world around us. It invites us into communion: communion with creation, communion with our neighbour, communion with God.