In my last post, I mentioned I was reading Debbie Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers. This is not the kind of book you can read in one sitting. Chasing the things you’ve hidden for the majority of your life is no small task, and it’s usually a good idea not to rush the process.
The hardest thing about connecting with your shadow forces, I’m realizing, is finding where they are. Oddly enough, these thoughts and feelings have a tendency to, well, hide in the shadows, away from casual perusal. And for people like me, who have spent the better part of four decades shoving their darkness as far down into the bottom of the bag as humanly possible, cajoling them out into the shallow light can be quite the challenge.
So Monday, while waiting to see my doctor about a nasty sinus infection that just won’t go away (thank you, Kentucky springs and the glorious allergens you provide free of charge!), I popped on my earphones and started listening to a downloaded recording of one of Debbie’s radio shows from the Hay House Radio archive. And as I waited (more or less patiently), a solution appeared to me from nowhere (as they are wont to do when you are wandering in the general vicinity of the question).
How do you find your shadow?
In the course of one of the programs, Debbie Ford instructed a caller to ask herself how she wanted people to see her. What is the best impression she could give the world? And when the caller responded, Debbie told her to flip it around and find the opposite of that image was her shadow side. That, Debbie Ford insisted, was the shame-based shadow persona the caller was trying to deny.
And then she went a step further. As the caller digested the horror of identifying with the antithesis of her view of perfection, Debbie asked her to find the gift in that quality she despised about herself.
I’d like to say that I had an instant personal revelation about myself and my personal insights. But, of course, that’s when the knock came on the door and my doctor came in to talk to me.
Fortunately, this interruption gave my subconscious mind time to ponder upon the question, and by the time I was driving home, the question reared itself again—this time, ready for me to pony up an answer.
How did I want the world to see me? And what possible gift could I find in the humiliating mirror-image I had locked in the basement of my personality?
Beautiful Me, C’Est Moi!
The woman in the picture about is the lovely actress Janis Paige, a legend of the big budget Hollywood musicals of the 1950s. But my first introduction to Janis Paige was a little after her heyday in such classics as Silk Stockings and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. No, by the time I heard of Janis Paige, she’d become firmly entrenched in the TV guest star gigs, from Alice to Mary Tyler Moore to Columbo.
And she played Aunti Viv on Eight is Enough. Now, next to Mame Dennis, Auntie Viv was my idea of the perfect woman. She was worldly, smart, fun-loving, and free-spirited. She swept into town like a hurricane, fresh from all points strange and exotic, spoiling the kids with gifts and stories and leaving a havoc of creative chaos in her wake. (She was cool like The Brady Bunch‘s Aunt Jenny, but the actress playing her was much hotter than Imogene Coca, so she won.)
So, what is it about Auntie Viv, Auntie Mame, and all those other awesome spinsters/bon vivants that exemplified the person I wanted to be?
- They were worldly. All of them had eschewed the ordinary marriage and kids route for something more daring and glamorous. No dull, country life for this girl—she was meant for broader horizons.
- They were sophisticated. All of them surrounded themselves with the cream of the crop—intellectuals, artists, free thinkers, philosophers—and found depth and wisdom through the complex relationships they shared. It wasn’t enough for them to grow, live, and die with the same six opinions enveloping their lives. They craved variety.
- They were fun. All of these ladies were wacky and, yes, a bit crazy. Never a dull moment with these Aunties, who were just as likely to ride in on a camel as in a cab!
- They were wise and generous. Under the wild exteriors, each of these characters revealed herself to be much deeper and wiser than her persona might suggest. It is the outsider aunt who has the very word of advice the seeker needs at the precise moment they need it most.
- They were mysterious. The Aunties arrived in a whirl of smoke and lights, and departed just as quickly at the end of the episode or film. There was no chance to see the mundane side—the PMS, the monthly bill paying, waiting for a cab in the rain at yet another airport—alone. No, these ladies were always “on” and fabulous!
As much fun as it was to compare myself to the Vivs and Mames and Jennys of the world, eventually I had to move to the shadow side of the question—what is the opposite of these traits I don’t want to acknowledge in myself?
A picture arose in my mind that just made me cringe—the Anti-Auntie.
- She’s provincial. So wrapped up in the local mundane world that she can’t see past the edge of her driveway. Not that she’d want to. Anti-Auntie loves her tiny little world, and how important she feels being a Big Fish in a Little Pond.
- She’s mundane. Bring on the bologna sandwiches and Wednesday night television line-up. Anti-Auntie doesn’t like all that weird stuff. She sticks to the tried and true, preferably if she wasn’t the one who first had to try it. Safe and bland is the way to go.
- She’s boring. Why keep up with news of the world and research and philosophy? That stuff is for other people, snobs who think they’re better than us. Anti-Auntie sticks to whatever everybody else talks about. She doesn’t make waves, even in her own thoughts.
- She’s petty. The highlight of her life is the faults she can find with her neighbors, and she’s always on the lookout for the latest gossip. Anti-Auntie holds grudges for decades, destroys friendships over the most inane offenses, and never once questions the rightness of her beliefs.
- She’s overbearing. Every gathering, every party, every event, there must be a spot of Anti-Auntie. The longer she’s around, the more of a burden she becomes on family and friends who don’t dare insult her by not inviting her (even though they really don’t want her around). Oblivious to the fact that she’s not particularly welcome, Anti-Auntie never refuses an invitation and is always the first to arrive and last to leave.
What a horrifying picture.
And she’s my shadow personality.
That’s Why They Call It a Shadow
So the truth of it is, there are days when I don’t feel all that worldly, sophisticated, funny, or mysterious. There are days when I prefer my dull little routine to more challenging experiences, and times when I’m not above accepting a charity invitation to somewhere I want to go.
No matter how far I go, how much I learn, underneath there will always remain the fact that I grew up in a small town (see our courthouse in the picture above) in an isolated part of the country. To some extent, I will always be an ignorant, awkward, boring small-town hick who doesn’t get the joke and never gets invited to the cool parties.
Not a pretty picture, when looked at in the cold hard light of day, huh?
So Where’s the Gift?
The last part of Debbie Ford’s process is to face that part of you that you hate, and try to find the gift in it.
What could possibly be the gift of being a dull, unimportant hick from a small town in Louisiana?
It took me a little while, but eventually I found the nugget of gold, deep down in the shadowy caverns.
This horrible, narrow, dull little person I feared becoming drove me, pushed me to explore and expand my horizons. Every new idea I delve into, every new experience I have, every person of a different culture I try to understand, and every adventure I am brave enough to embrace—all of these are spurred on by that shadow fear of being dull, stupid, petty, or narrow.
From this shadow fear come the most wonderful experiences of my life, those Do I/Don’t I decisions where I decide to go for it when I otherwise might have shied away from the risk. Every time I was brave, every time I did something crazy that turned out to be a fantastic adventure, every time I tried something new that I learned to love, the Anti-Auntie was in the background, scolding and tsking and telling me not to make a fool of myself.
And Auntie Viv and Auntie Mame and Aunt Jenny were on the other side, laughing and telling me I had nothing to lose.
Easy choice, in retrospect.
Where To Now?
So now, thanks to this little process from Debbie Ford, I have new archetypes I can consciously use when making decisions. Do I follow the path of the Aunties, or the Anti-Auntie? Do I choose expansiveness and courage, or narrowness and fear?
And of course, that leads to the following questions for you, dear readers. Who are your Aunties? What are they like, and what characteristics do they have that you want to exemplify? Who is your Anti-Auntie, narrowing your scope and keeping you shackled to the safe and dull? And what gift has this Anti-Auntie given you, albeit sometimes in a roundabout way?
I’d love to hear what you discover. Please feel free to comment.
By the time Friday comes around, it feels like I’ve had a tap attached to my spine (like a maple tree). All the life essence is slowly drained by the stresses and frustrations of The Day Job until I feel depleted and weak.
The more I delve into the world of writing (and getting paid for writing), the harder it is to keep myself motivated at The Day Job. I do important work, and I’m very good at what I do. But there are days, weeks even, when I wish I could just head out in a random direction and live off my wits for a while.
The good news is that these impulses aren’t very strong, nor do they stay for very long. But they remind me, profoundly, that life is not what you do for a living, nor is it where you live and what you have.
Life is the sap of a tree, and you only have so much of it this time around.
So, what are you going to do? Let life drain you dry for its own profit, or use your own life-blood in the way you want?
I’ve encountered a lot of atheists in the past few years. A random way to start a blog post, I know, but it has been on my mind for a while.
You see, I’ve lived my entire life in one conservative religious area or another. Raised in Catholic Louisiana, moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where the Mormons are, and finally settled in the heart of Southern Baptist Central in Kentucky. While I may not agree with them 90% of the time, and while my “lifestyle” (whatever that means) is enough to send many of them into fits of holy despair, flailing and blessing themselves and speaking in tongues at the horror of me, it still feels normal to be surrounded by folks who take their religion seriously, and who aren’t afraid to let you know it. (You may not agree with Christians, but at least you’re pretty sure of where you can find them on Sunday morning.)
It’s possible this background has ill-prepared me for a life among the secular crowd (you know, the ones who didn’t have priests over to their house for Sunday dinner and who didn’t spend Monday night at catechism class instead of at home, watching Logan’s Run like they really wanted…). People who sleep in on Sundays, who never bless their food when it drops to the floor (a quick Sign of the Cross plus the Two Second Rule is usually enough to stop most germ-related disasters), and who simply do not believe in religion.
No, where I come from, atheists are like ghosts, phantoms used to scare little children, more fantasy than fact. I was almost thirty when I met my first “out” atheist. At forty-five, I’m still a little shocked when I hear someone tell me they don’t believe in god, religion, or any such thing.
So why am I suddenly seeing atheists everywhere?
Out of the Secular Closet
Perhaps one of the reasons I’m seeing more atheists these days in online communities is that it’s simply no longer such a social taboo to identify as a non-believer. Not only does the online world offer access to all types of people with all types of beliefs, it also provides a space where people can express ideas and reveal personal information with far less fear of judgement and shame than ever before. These days nobody bats an eye when you tell them you are gay, in an interracial relationship, on antidepressants, or any number of things that were once really, really, really taboo.
People just take things more in stride today. And without the risk of utter ostracizing looming on the horizon atheists and agnostics are becoming not only more vocal, but more assertive. Famous atheists like Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins have made reputations for themselves (not always positive) as aggressive, unabashed non- believers who have little time or patience for the “fantasy” of religion.
Drawing the Lines in the Sand (and Elsewhere)
It is also no surprise that the steady rise in power of the Far Christian Right in America and abroad has engendered a backlash. More and more people, in an attempt to distance themselves from the profound intolerance and narrowness this movement generally displays, have become more openly accepting of “fringe” religions such as Wicca, and of no religion at all. The phrase “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual” has tripped from the tongue of many liberals over the past twenty years.
My own faith, which is an unruly mash-up of Buddhism, pantheism, goddess worship, and the occasional Catholic dogma, can hardly be classified as religious. And while I have definitely drawn my line in the sand, both with family and friends, as far as my faith goes, I still don’t feel the extreme antipathy many non-Christians have for our Christian neighbors. No, my philosophy is Live and Let Live, but don’t try to tell me how to live or pray.
A Disturbing Trend
But back to atheists…. Recently I’ve noticed a trend among bloggers who identify as atheists to be dismissive and often downright insulting when discussing religion and the people who practice those religions. In movies like Religulous and on more and more public forums, there is often a confrontational tone taken by atheists asserting their right to believe (or not believe) whatever they choose. It seems more often than not, when I see a person or a group who pronounce they are atheist, there is a general attitude of hostility in the air, especially towards people who follow some sort of spiritual or religious path.
Back in the Day, when I used to regularly attend science fiction conventions, there was a phrase we used to describe obnoxious fans who delighted in tormenting so-called “normal” people with outrageous and often inappropriate behavior. We called it “Playing Shock the Mundane.” You see, for so long these folks were the butt of every joke in the “real world.” Once they were safely in the majority, they reveled in turning the tables on people who just looked like they were normal. It was juvenile, embarrassing, and hardly did our group any favors in the community.
I think a lot of atheists are engaged in a massive game of Shock the Mundane with people of faith. For years, they have had religion shoved down their throat, were preached to, pummeled with reasons and rationales that were downright offensive to their skeptical minds. With the rise of the Internet, however, more and more people are “coming out” as nonbelievers. And this heady new group mentality can be tempting….
Okay, before you get all crazy, no I’m not criticizing people for being atheists. When my dear friend and mentor told me he was an atheist (and had been for as long as I’d known him), I was surprised but not offended. This man spent the bulk of his adult life surrounded by pagans and witches and people of all faiths and sizes, yet he is the least judgmental person I have ever known. He respects my beliefs and asks that I respect his. Our friendship is based on mutual trust and shared interests, and is too strong to be shaken by the fact that one of us is a believer and the other is not.
Transcending the Awful
As our world grows steadily smaller, we are going to have to find a way to live together on this planet. People of differing faiths have to work out a strategy for dialogue that promotes civil and respectful cohabitation. This dialogue must also include (and welcome) atheists, agnostics, and the undecided.
There is nothing to be gained on either side by name-calling, baiting, or harassment. People of faith are not stupid, and contrary to a bumper sticker I once saw, April 1 is not National Atheist Day (“because only a fool wouldn’t believe in God.”)
We are all just humans, trying to make sense of the universe around us using whatever tools work best for us. Whether our tool of choice is faith, science, philosophy, or some other esoteric discipline, we are all still heading towards the same goal of basic understanding.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Mormon or Dianic or Druid or Church of the Sub-Genius, nor does it matter if you don’t have an ounce of spiritual/religious faith in your body. What matters is cooperation, mutual respect, and civility between all people.
And whether you’re a follower of Christ, Buddha or Stephen Hawking, you have to admit those are pretty good goals to pursue.