I’ve been singing Psalms lately.
Sing them long enough, and we memorize them; or they begin memorizing us.
Every day, my hope is that I will learn to love more as Christ did and does and will. I think it is better to have the highest aspirations and fail to reach them than to set the bar low and get there. So please keep in mind this prayerful intention of my soul’s will towards loving more when I tell you that I adore the total picture of the Psalms.
The Psalms are the best workbook on prayer. Read them with a sincere heart, and we pray. Sing them, and they change us.
In the Psalms, we get to follow the rollercoaster emotions that make up us human beings. They are the lifeblood of the Psalms—honest, intimate emotions confessed through tears, cried out with a red face, shouted out in despair, spat out in anger, and sung out in praise to God.
I love that they praise God, I love that they beg God for help, I love that they express my feelings of failure when I’ve fallen flat on my face and am hungering for God’s great compassion to blot out my transgressions, and I love that they show real anger at life’s injustices.
Their complexity of raw emotions used to bother me. I’m not supposed to hate others who hurt me and wish them dead, right? But the Psalms cover that, too. And is there any human who has escaped being hurt and feeling hatred and having such unholy thoughts?
I’ve said it before, and I say it again. It’s tricky being a human being.
Apparently, to be human means to be at war with my own mixed motives and to become aware that my heart is hard with a “me-me-me” perspective. In fact, God says through one of his prophets that to be human is to have a divided heart and that only he can soften our hearts of stone and give us new life: “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19), and God also says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26).
Jung describes our split natures this way: “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.” (The Portable Jung, 362)
The Psalms, however, show us just that—a human facing his own soul. They reveal a human being’s showing up for his own life. They share a human being’s wanting to be closer to God and yet feeling weak, sinful, helpless, insecure, wounded, and vengeful and at other times experiencing perfect contentment in God’s love, gratitude for blessings, healing in forgiveness, and joy in the intimacy of divine friendship.
In short, the Psalms cover the up-and-down emotions of being an ordinary human being.
They include the shadow self that each one of us has, . . . or that has each one of us. In many of the Psalms we see a very human human being struggling with his shadow self. You know—the person who rarely makes an appearance in public but whom you meet unmasked in your dreams or when stuck in mind-enraging traffic in Cartersville at one of those five-minute red lights or when you feel that someone got something and you didn’t or when you feel overlooked or when you feel put down or when you feel hurt or when you feel anxious or when you feel intimidated or when you feel stupid or when the person in the fifteen-limit Kroger line plonks down THIRTY items and then conducts a FIFTEEN-MINUTE talk with the clerk at the cash register while you stomp your foot and sigh or when someone cuts in front of you in Atlanta traffic or even when you feel inside the almost overwhelming surge of I’m going to get what I want no matter WHAT IT TAKES.
I am merely speaking from experience—my experience.
When reading, studying, meditating on, or singing the darker Psalms, I think, I’m not alone in feeling that way, and that shared experience in itself is comforting.
Getting to know our shadow selves is apparently not for the faint of heart. Jung writes that we naturally turn away from our darker side: “We instinctively resist trying the way that leads through obscurity and darkness” (5). He says that we must, however, venture into and emerge again from the darkness (5).
Some of my favorite comic book characters do shadowboxing. I think of the black suit that Spiderman becomes addicted to wearing, almost without knowing it, and how he must come to grips with its existence.
Also, in the 1983 Superman III movie with Christopher Reeves as Superman, a dark Superman appears who straightens out the Tower of Pisa, blows out the Olympic Flame at the opening ceremonies, and rips a hole in an oil tanker, creating a dangerous oil slick. Dark Superman’s costume gets dirty, and his clean-cut face laxes into an unshaven, disreputable stubble. Not long after, the shadow Superman finds himself face-to-face with the bespectacled Clark Kent, who looks him in the eye, wrestles with him, and after some close calls, wins.
When I saw this movie, I was twenty-two, and I was reminded of Jacob’s wrestling an angel who refused to give Jacob his name (Genesis 32 and Hosea 12), saying, in fact: “Why do you want to know what my name is?” This holy encounter changed Jacob forever.
So, I’ve been obsessed lately, in a non-thinking way, with my shadow self. (Hello, wonderful Spring-2011 Word-Study students!). To tether amorphous emotions and non-thoughts with something concrete, I looked up the etymology of shadow. I was looking for the dark meanings of shadow but first came across the fact that, when used as a verb, shadow comes from the Old English sceadwian for “to cover as if with wings, protect.”
That positive connotation of “to shadow,” meaning “to protect,” reminds me of Augustine’s “felix culpa,” or “fortunate fall” / “happy catastrophe,” reminding me that my shadow self is the mortal wound through which God’s light-bringing eternal grace often enters.
Now, if we think of the ancient idea that sometimes darkness is an excess of light, then we can see how complicated our simplistic dualistic notions actually are, when viewed with whole-seeking eyes. I’d prefer never again to think dualistically but haven’t yet found the vitamin in Kroger for enhancing that part of my vision. But any one of us who has walked through deeply confusing days has likely seen that darkness can represent both what is least attractive in us humans and also an excess of light that is filling ours souls with Christ’s loving grace.
The notion of the unconscious shadow self as creative when acknowledged and integrated into a person’s conscious life is echoed again in the Old English word sceadu, for “shade, shadow, darkness, a shady place, protection from glare or heat.”
It’s my choice. My shadow self can dog me, or I can face her, just as the Old English sceadu can mean both “a destructive influence” or “protection.” The facing of my shadow self can “protect” me because if I grow in knowledge of my darkness and also in the knowledge that Christ loves me completely, I can rest in the shade of Christ’s love, rather than traipse, lost, through the noonday desert of both arrogance and self-loathing.
Here’s where I got to in thinking or in not-thinking about my shadow self. I often ask Jesus to become real to me where the holes in my soul breathe and hurt and are so needy and so very much afraid.
Sometimes, since I can remember, I want to put certain people in those holes. Often, these have been people I find quite attractive for various reasons—they are smart, funny, and kind. I want to apply these people as band-aids onto the gaping wounds of my soul, but always, without fail, such medicine does not work. It can’t.
We can love each other, but we can’t plug each others’ wounds of soul. Only as I become better friends with Jesus do I see that even Jesus is not meant to be used in this way. My favorite ancient Christian writers say over and over, as if my brain hears it and forgets it while driving through the Chick-Fil-A drive-through window trying to explain that, no, we don’t, thanks, want pickles on those chicken sandwiches, but, please, yes, leave the cherries on one of the four chocolate milkshakes—that we are to love God for God, not for anything that he can “do” for us.
Anyway, all of our best on-earth relationships have that same spirit, don’t they? I love my husband because he’s Sean. He is a very wonderful man and also does a lot of nice things for me, but that’s not why I love him. I love Sean because he is Sean. Just because. I love my children just because also. And one of the greatest surprises of the afternoon of my human life is that I am beginning to also love me myself just because. This is the final frontier.
To love my self as very flawed human being who is also however lovely in God’s sight and God-loved and who can be and is God’s friend—that is my final, lasting adventure. It is also my experience of and future hope in transformation in Christ’s love.
So now I smile when I think of my outer self, with its well-earned, increasingly much-loved wrinkled and wrinkling face, when I also consider that within, my soul is ripening like a green apple in the bright, warm sun of Christ’s presence, under the blue sky of God’s Spirit, and on a branch of God the Father’s abiding love.
As my new friend Fr. Tom Francis of the Conyers Monastery says with wise, purposeful ungrammatical emphasis when he signs off his e-mails to me: “United in our Three Divine Friends = WE AM.”
(This blog is not about theodicy, by the way. Instead, it is mostly about being friends with God and with growing in self-knowledge within the context or safe “container” of Christ’s love. God is my friend, and my trust in his good purposes for my life and for the world grows as I empty myself before him; but that is not to say that I am foolish enough to think that I understand why the injustices in life exist nor that I don’t get very upset about them.)
In my own life, I see more and more the truth of Paul’s wise words: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15)
That one verse in Romans sums up my understanding of my shadow self.
I often don’t clearly understand my own motives. Sometimes I think I am doing a good thing out of love only to see later that my “good deed” was selfishly motivated and not that caring, actually. Other times, I give up and just do my very-weak best, and that turns out to have been helpful to someone else, and I marvel.
I drink six cups of coffee a day. I give up six cups of coffee a day. Next, I hear my sweet tooth wanting more and more and more. Then, I don’t want to think that ugly thought about someone, and I do think it. My thoughts fly like Kentucky derby horses out of the starting gates. They stampede through my mind sometimes. And on occasion I get scared for no reason whatsoever that I can see.
Being a human being is tricky.
That’s why I can almost hear Paul shouting as he writes that later verse in that chapter: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
Sometimes when I’m at Jandy’s, the new yoghurt place in town, all of a sudden, in the middle of pulling down the middle lever that intertwines chocolate and vanilla yoghurts into one cold, lovely rope of brown-and-white sweetness, I’ll start thinking about Carl Jung.
Lately, I’ve begun to love my shadow. The darkness that each human being has—my weaknesses, sins, insecurities, and wounds—God loves, embraces, steps into, and redeems in his grace.
Also, the more I see my dark self, the less I project it onto others. That makes me more peaceful and happier.
In this dark soil, I have faith God plants his most fecund seeds of joy and transformation in Christ.