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Sunday Message for June 4, 2023


How would you like to be able to laugh at that part of you that you fear the most? Well, today's talk is called "Laughing at our Shadow Selves." But first let me read you a piece called Love After Love by Derek Walcott:
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.a

We need to remember to do this, remember that we are the beloved of God. Because only when we love ourselves will we be able to uncover all that is within us, and honor that too.

So how did all those hidden things get inside us? I think Robert Bly says it well in his book The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us, he says:

"When we were one or two years old, we had what we might visualize as 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents did not like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: "Can't you be still?" Or "It isn't nice to try to kill your brother."

So behind us, we create an invisible bag, and those parts our parents don't like, we, to keep our parents' love, put in the bag. By the time we get to school our bag is quite large. Then our teachers have their say. They tell us, "Good children don't get angry over such little things." So, we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as the "Nice Bly Boys". Our bags were already a mile long.

We spend our life until we're twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed. And suppose the bag does remain sealed. . . what happens then?"

So there are times when we witness a silly, embarrassing, flawed or shameful part of ourselves, and we laugh. And then there are times when we witness these silly, embarrassing, flawed and shameful parts of ourselves, and we go on the attack. I'm going to talk about that desire to attack and how we might, instead, learn to laugh.

But before we get into it - let me tell you a minister joke:

So, a minister, a priest and a rabbi went for a hike. It was an unbelievably hot day, a real scorcher. So, when they came upon a small lake, a little skinny dipping seemed like the natural thing to do. After all, they were friends, and the spot was secluded. But wouldn't you know it, right as they were getting out of the water, along came a group of women from their town.

All three clergy took swift action. The minister immediately covered his private parts, as did the priest. But the rabbi's hands shot up and covered his face. After the dust settled and they found their clothes, the minister and the priest turned to their friend the rabbi and said, "What in heavens name were you thinking, leaving yourself exposed like that?!"

To which the rabbi replied, "Well fellas, I don't know about you, but in my congregation, it's my face they would recognize."

And so it is that we begin this morning with a recognition that, while it may be different for each one of us, we all have parts of ourselves that we want to hide! As Robert Bly said, we've all got our bag. For some of us, it's full of parts we're ashamed of. For others, it's packed with undeveloped parts we've ignored. For still others, that bag is a refuge of wounded parts that have given up on healing and now are devoted to staying hidden so they can never be hurt again.

Psychologists call it our "shadow." This is a perfect description because these are the parts of ourselves that we pretend aren't there and yet they trail behind us, they "shadow" us, no matter what we do. It's not like a container for precious possessions we want to keep safe.

No, we're talking here about the bag we wish we could throw in the river - the parts of ourselves we wish would just go away. In fact, these are the parts we fool ourselves into believing have gone away

For us responsible folks, it's our laziness. For us laid-back, go-with-the-flow folks, it's our desire to have things just a certain way. For us strong types, it's our need to be taken care of. For us empathetic types, it's our selfishness. For us peace-loving pacifists, it's the desire to wring some fool's neck.

Scott Tayler, a Parish Co-Minister in a Unitarian Church said, "I'll never forget how this came up with Hildegarde Vandersluess, a member of my previous church in Syracuse. She is one of the "church saints" - loved and admired by everyone. The kindest and most generous-hearted person you'll ever meet. And I praised her for it one day. "I wish," I told her, "that I had your ability to always see the best in others." Hildegarde smiled, and said, "Oh, thanks dear, but you have no idea how many times a day I look at people and think to myself: What a putz!"

Now, as much as it amazed me that Hildegarde had such thoughts, what amazed me even more, frankly, was that she was willing to admit she had those thoughts."

It's just not something that most of us do. Her undesirable parts had no bag. In her mind's eye, they sat there right alongside her great kindness. She didn't put them "out of sight and out of mind." No, somehow, she had the courage to look at and embrace her entire self. And, perhaps we, too, need to be that brave.

The author and theologian, Fredrick Buechner, says the central paradox and challenge of the human condition isn't that we desire holiness, but are stuck in sin; nor is it that we desire perfection, but constantly fall short. Rather, he says, it's that we hunger to be known in our full humanity and yet fear that exposure more than anything else.

Buechner doesn't use the word shadow; he instead talks about our "secrets." We desperately want others to know them, he says, and yet we can't imagine a more dangerous thing. Forget all that stuff you've heard about hypocrisy or people wanting to seem holier than thou, he says. No, the reason we keep secrets is much more basic than that. Simply put, we want to be loved and we're scared to death our secrets will get in the way.

And so they stay hidden - from others most certainly - but also, he says, from ourselves.d

And that brings us back to Robert Bly's question. Suppose that the bag remains sealed. Suppose we keep our secrets hidden. "What happens then?"

The Buddhists tell a tale of a beginning meditation student. This student had finally figured out how to reach that deep trance-like place, between waking and sleeping, where defensives are down, and the soul is said to be able to speak most clearly. While in this open state, he suddenly saw a spider dangle down before him on a silken thread. It was ugly and threatening and, each day during his meditation, it would come back bigger, uglier, and more threatening than the day before.

Finally the student became so frightened he went to his teacher. "Master," he explained, "for days now a spider has distracted me from my meditation. So, I've decided that from now on I'm going to meditate with a knife in my lap, so the next time the spider comes I can kill it."

His teacher patiently and gently explained that, usually in the Buddhist tradition, knives and meditation don't go together! Instead, his teacher suggested an alternative strategy. "Forget the knife," he said, "and instead how about you bring a piece of chalk with you to meditation." He went on, "When the spider appears, just calmly mark an X on his belly and then report back to me."

It was a peculiar assignment, but the student did as his teacher instructed. The next day, sure enough, when he entered into that place between waking and sleeping, the spider descended down and dangled in front of his face. But, resisting the urge to attack, the student marked an X on his belly. When he was done meditating, the student rushed from his room to report back to the teacher what happened. "Master, I did as you said; I marked an X on the belly of the monster." "Excellent! Congratulations!" said the teacher, "You have just learned one of life's greatest lessons." And the teacher then reached out and lifted up the student's shirt, revealing a giant chalk-marked "X."

The student was appalled. But the master simply hugged the student and laughed.

So, you don't have to raise your shirt - but does anyone here have an X on his belly. You don't have to answer. I don't want to embarrass anyone. And when I say I don't want to embarrass us, I'm not just talking about the embarrassing exposure of our love-handles; but I'm talking about the embarrassing exposure of the fact that very few of us have that chalk-marked X on our bellies.

No, the truth is - as healthy, self-aware and sophisticated as we like to think of ourselves - we are as human as everybody else! It's just too hard to talk, think or laugh about the X's that rightly belong on our bellies. Like the student, we much prefer fighting imaginary spiders.

And there's our answer, isn't it?!

Again, Robert Bly asks: "What happens if our scary and unwanted stuff stays in the bag?"

Deep down, we already know the answer, don't we? The Buddhist story just helps us put it into words. To refuse to look at and own our own stuff doesn't make it go away. Instead, we infuse the world with a whole bunch of monsters that need slaying. "Shadow Boxing" is what Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, called it. And it's a perfect way of putting it. Like the Tibetan Buddhists, Jung was able to see - so much better than the rest of us - how our battles with the "bad guys" out in the world are - more often than not - really wrestling matches with our own inner demons.e

This is why the shadow metaphor is so helpful: Just like our physical shadows, our psychological shadows regularly slip between us and others, creating a dangerously distorted picture in which we think we are clearly seeing the enemy before us, when in truth we're looking in the mirror.

For instance, take that lazy younger brother of yours. Everybody else in the family seems to take him with a grain of salt. They see him as laid back, marching to a different drummer. But not you; oh no! Every time you're around him, his failure to help or to show up on time drives you crazy. You see it for what it is - a deep and dangerous moral failing, a major sin of disrespect.

And you just can't figure out why others tolerate this behavior. So, in your mind, and often even out loud, you let him have it. You confront him regularly or throw him dirty looks letting him know that at least one family member has the guts to call him on his selfish and thoughtless behavior.

Now if this does describe you, then Carl Jung would say congratulations, you've got this shadow-boxing thing mastered. You may tell yourself it's your baby brother you are slugging, but really it is your own shadow you're chewing out! The give away, says Jung, is the excess of emotion. Sure, your little brother is lazy. You're not imagining that.

But your reaction is simply out of whack - way out of proportion to the offense. That extra energy, Jung says, is coming from you. That poor slug of a baby brother isn't just catching your disgust for his irresponsibility, he's also absorbing the disgust you have for your own irresponsibility. Or maybe it's more accurate to say: he's catching all your pent-up resentment over the fact that you never get to be the irresponsible, care-free one!

But whichever it is, it's not about our spidery siblings, right? It's about that unacknowledged X under our own shirts.

So what are we to do?!

Well, here's where Carl Jung and the spiritual traditions offer their greatest gift, because what they ask us to do is so different than what our instincts would suggest. The first thing they ask us to do is celebrate. That's right, celebrate. Forget beating yourself up. Forget wallowing in or confessing your hypocrisy. Instead start celebrating, they say! Remember the first thing the Buddhist teacher said to his meditation student, "Congratulations!" Not, "Shame on you." Not, "Go forth and ask forgiveness." But "Congratulations!"

Yeah, we've unfairly beat up our little brothers. And yeah, we should apologize. But to stop there is to completely overlook what has just occurred. We haven't just taken our stuff out on someone else; we've also made a great discovery: We've found ourselves a spiritual team-mate.

There's a Jewish teaching which says the first thing we will be asked to do when we go to heaven is go visit all our enemies; not, the teaching says, in order to make peace with them, but to thank them - thank them for all they tried to teach us about ourselves during our time on earth. This is exactly what Carl Jung, and the great spiritual traditions are saying, with the additional plea to not wait until we get to heaven. Do it now, they say. This very day. Start seeing your enemies as your greatest teachers, maybe your greatest friends.

Which leads to the second peculiar thing Carl Jung and the spiritual traditions tell us to do. Once our enemies help us identify the spiders in our bag, the next logical step would seem to be finding the courage to eradicate those personal spiders. But - get this! - that's not what Jung and the spiritual traditions instruct. Instead, they tell us to feed them - Yes, FEED THEM!

The spiritual goal from this perspective is not about getting us to remove the log from our own eye before going after the splinters in the eyes of others. This is about getting us to think about that log in our eye in a brand-new way! Simply put, according to Jung, the most important thing our enemies teach us is not how hypocritical and terrible we really are, but how secretly hungry we are.

Again, going back to our little brothers. From Jung's perspective, the fact that we overreact to their laziness, doesn't so much mean we're hypocrites, as much as it means that there is a big piece of us that hungers to let our hair down and stop being the responsible one all the time!

So. . .do blowhards drive you crazy? Do you just hate them? If so, pay attention to that, says Carl Jung. Because more likely than not, it means a part of you is just dying to feel confident and free enough to speak your mind whenever you want!

Are you excessively hard on people in power positions? "Great!," says Jung, that's a message from your soul that a piece of you probably wants more control over your life, or that you feel there's more leadership potential in you than your current job or life circumstances allow.

Hate gluttons? Awesome! You've just been told that a piece of you feels like it is starving.

Showoffs get under your skin? Eureka! You've just learned something deep inside you needs to be noticed.

Do you secretly believe that stay-at-home moms are taking the easy way out? "Super!" says Jung. Your soul has just announced that a part of you doesn't really love the fact that work dominates your life.

And do you just hate it when those needy women and quiche-eating men cry and fall apart at the drop of a hat?! - getting everyone's attention and sympathy in the process? Well, excellent! You've just been introduced to that part of you that is scared to death about having to handle things all on your own - that part of you that desperately wants to be taken care of but doesn't know how to ask.

It's all very strange, I know. It's more than enough to make your head spin. It'd be so much easier if all we had to do was eliminate our enemies and our shadow sides, rather than understand them. It'd be so much simpler if all we had to do was denounce our dark, weak, and vulnerable sides, rather than embrace and own them.

And of course it would also take a lot less courage.

And maybe this, in the end, is the message we need most reminded of: That it takes courage. That the spiritual life, above all, requires courage. It's not easy to look honestly at yourself. It's not easy to take the wide-eyed, rather than the blind-eyed path. It's not easy to admit that your enemies are largely your own creations. It's not easy to admit that your stuff is more in control of you than you are of it. And it's certainly not easy to admit that we sit here today with needs so great we fear saying them out loud.

But this is exactly what is asked of us - and not just asked of us by our religion but also by our deepest selves. This is why, Derek Walcott - in the poem that I read earlier - was so confidently able to say:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself. . .
arriving at your own door,
in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.

In the face of this image and in light of all this shadow-stuff, who can help but laugh?! It's such a strange way for life to let us know what we hunger for and need most. But the gift is there nevertheless - if we put down the knife, take up a smile and accept the X as our own.

Let it be your way...

aLove After Love Derek Walcott
bRobert Bly The Long Bag We Drag Behind Us
cScott Tayler, Parish Co-Minister, Unitarian Church
dFredrick Buechner
eCarl Jung

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