Healing America’s Narratives: Our Collective National Shadow

[Adapted from Chapter Two of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow]

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In mid-March, 2003 I sat with Animas Valley Institute’s Bill Plotkin and others in Payson, Arizona, for five days of an experience entitled “Sweet Darkness: The Initiatory Gifts of the Shadow, Projections, Subpersonalities, and the Sacred Wound.” On the evening of our first day there, the United States began bombing Iraq. So while we were exploring our respective individual Shadows and projections, our country’s collective Shadow and projections — “the evil out there” that we tend to see in other nations, groups, cultures, genders, colors, orientations, and people — was on full display, providing us an opportunity for recognition, ownership, and integration at the national level as well.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson refers to “persona” as “what we would like to be and how we wish to be seen by the world.…our psychological clothing” — the mask we wear. He refers to “ego” as “what we are and know about consciously” and to “Shadow” as “that part of us we fail to see or know…. that which has not entered adequately into consciousness.”¹

In A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly posits that behind each of us in childhood, “we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.” In order to keep our elementary-school teachers happy, we continue to fill the bag, and in high school we further fill the bag in order to please our peers. “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put in 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.”² Bly points out that “There is also a national bag, and ours is quite long…. we are noble; other nations have empires. Other nations endure stagnant leadership, treat minorities brutally, brainwash their youth, and break treaties.”³

So, Shadow refers to disowned or repressed traits of an individual or group that the individual or group doesn’t recognize in itself and unknowingly projects onto others, whether or not the trait is considered positive or negative and whether or not the others actually embody the projected trait. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. If I tend to have a disproportionately highly charged emotional response to someone I experience as angry, there’s a good chance that I’ve repressed or disowned my own anger — it’s in my invisible bag.⁴ Until I recognize this dynamic and work to integrate my anger, anger will follow me around and allow me to see all these angry people “out there” everywhere I go, while I remain oblivious to being the one constant at every scene of all this anger. Everyone else is angry. I’m not. Oops.

Finally, the word shadow is sometimes used to refer to negative or undesired traits that we don’t like about ourselves. We might refer to these traits as our “dark side.” These undesired traits that were never in or that we’ve already retrieved from our invisible bag are not what we mean by Shadow in this essay.(6) We don’t know our Shadow is there. Our repression and denial are not conscious choices. Collective Shadow, as used here, refers to elements that are common to individuals in the United States. A nation does not have a discrete psyche or Shadow. A nation’s Shadow exists in the collective impact of individual Shadow elements that are common to many — not necessarily all — of its citizens.

As developed in Healing America’s Narratives, the collective Shadow of the United States historically and currently includes at least nine traits: ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess, bullying, and untrustworthiness. Chapter Ten of the book argues that one man — a former president — embodies all of these traits and that his life unintentionally presents us with a gift: an invitation to recognize, own, and integrate our national Shadow amid our ongoing American experiment.

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1. Robert A. Johnson, Owning Your Own Shadow, 3–4.

2. Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow, 17–18.

3. Ibid., 26.

4. Anger is not necessarily a “bad” thing; it is clarifying. What can go wrong is how we understand and what we do with our anger.

Cultural Givens and the View from Here

[Adapted from Chapter One of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow (October 2022)]

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Everything we do or say arises through our worldview, which arises through our experiences, beliefs, values, relationships, aspirations, and development. It includes those aspects of ourselves of which we’re not yet aware — our Shadow. Each of us, in our earliest moments and years is given a view of the world — “cultural givens,” — direct experiences of and beliefs about the world that our family of origin holds to be true. These experiences and beliefs include everything from ethnicity to local community to religious belief (or lack thereof) to national citizenship to our parents’ personalities to geography, climate, and year of birth.

It is possible to embrace these givens and live our lives without ever questioning them. It is also possible, and advisable, from the perspective of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health, to embrace these givens early on and then, most commonly in adolescence and beyond but sometimes earlier, to reflect on them, challenge them, and see how they hold up against our direct experience of life.

An example: my current worldview is not the one I was given at birth and began to accept in early childhood. That worldview held that I was living in the greatest country in history and tended to favor being Italian-American, Catholic, and a New Yorker, among other characteristics. Our intention here is not to criticize our cultural givens. Criticizing our earliest views and ways of being in the world makes as much sense as criticizing an acorn for not yet being an oak or an infant for not yet being an adult. There is, however, a time to wake up, grow up, clean up, and show up. In waking up, we commit to seeing ‘what is’ through various states of consciousness. In growing up, we develop by seeking and taking increasingly inclusive, comprehensive, complex, and balanced perspectives. In cleaning up, we recognize, own, and integrate Shadow. And in showing up, we live authentically and help others. You get the idea.

The obvious (and easy to forget) importance here is that every person born anywhere and at any time since humans first appeared has his, her, or their own set of givens — in every location on the planet, with or without religion, and in poverty and wealth. Makes sense, yes? Each of us has a given story — an initial set of givens — whether or not we are aware of it. Some of it is given in order to simplify a complex world for young children; some of it is given as literal truth by the adults who believe it; and each of us continues to be given more input through late childhood, adolescent, young adult, and adult experiences and observations. What we choose to accept, embrace, revise, or reject is up to us. Each of us is responsible for our choices, acceptances, embraces, revisions, and rejections. No one is exempt.

American Status Quo

The following is excerpted and adapted from Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow by Reggie Marra—forthcoming in October 2022.

On September 23, 2001 Rabbi Marc Gellman was one of the religious leaders who gathered at Yankee Stadium for a memorial service for the victims of the September 11 attacks. At the time the estimated number of deaths still hovered around 6,000, and Rabbi Gellman spoke of how stating the number of deaths—like 6,000 or six million—explains very little other than “how much death came in how short a time.” He went on to say that “the real horror of that day lies not in its bigness, but in its smallness. In the small searing death of one person 6,000 times, and that person was not a number. That person was our father or our mother or our son or our daughter…”1

            America’s ongoing domestic body count requires that we honor this observation. As a nation we have become numb to the 103 gunshot deaths a day because this everyday violence only earns headline status if it qualifies as a mass shooting—with four or more victims at the same time and in the same place.2 Three doesn’t cut it. Recently, ten shooting victims in a grocery store and twenty-one in an elementary school were required to remind us of our American status quo. And even with the headlines and talking heads that such tragedies elicit, even with the photos and brief bios of the deceased, the “small searing death” of each individual carries with it agonizingly intimate memories and moments in the hearts and minds of surviving family and friends that the rest of us simply cannot imagine, try though we might.

            The United States struggles and has struggled since its inception with the denial of the worse demons of its nature. Ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess, bullying, and untrustworthiness cross breed and manifest in what Robert Bly called the long invisible bag we drag behind us—filled with all we deny and repress about ourselves—our collective national Shadow.

            As a nation, America remains an experiment. We were conceived through an often remarkable fertilization of ideas that gave voice to some and subjugated others. We were born through a bloodbath that separated us from the British. We were raised on the enslavement of Africans and African Americans, on land theft from and the massacre and betrayal of Native Peoples, on the subjugation of women, and on peasant labor. We were reborn in an attempt to maintain the experiment through an anything-but-civil bloodbath with ourselves, from which we have yet to fully recover. And we were reborn yet again as a financial and military superpower as the result of a global bloodbath.

            We regularly perpetrate and perpetuate violence against others while refusing to acknowledge and address in any effective way the everyday violence we commit against each other. Not yet 250 years old, we embody unhealthy iterations of adolescent beliefs in invincibility and immortality, despite clear evidence that we are neither. Not only have we not recovered from our bloodbaths of birth and rebirth in any whole, integrated sense, we continue to choose to bathe ourselves and others in blood, literally and metaphorically, because that is the normal we know.

            Ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess, bullying, and untrustworthiness: we can recognize them, own them, and integrate them, or they will continue to own us. Which do you choose?

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1 Rabbi Marc Gellman, remarks at the September 23, 2001 Prayer Service at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. The video is available online: https://www.c-span.org/video/?166250-1/york-city-prayer-service.

2 2014-2019: 14,515 gun deaths/year avg. (not suicide) = 40/day avg; 23,094 suicides by gun = 63/day; 37,609 total annual gun deaths = 103/day: https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/