Healing America’s Narratives: The Inevitability of the Current Mood of the United States

[Part of a series, this essay explores the inevitability that surfaced amid the research for and writing of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.]

Photo © by tom coe on Unsplash

If we begin with Jamestown, Virginia in 1607 and work our way forward through each day since then, especially those days not included in some of the more (in)famous years like 1619, 1776, 1787, 1830, 1865, 1868, 1920, 1945, 1964, 2001, 2003 (et cetera)¹ and into our current state of affairs in the third decade of the twenty-first century, where we are as a country is inevitable. Said differently, our ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, violence, greed, excess, bullying, and untrustworthiness are not surprising.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bright Shining LieNeil Sheehan wrote this about the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam:

“What Calley and others who participated in the massacre did that was different was to kill hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese in two hamlets in a single morning and to kill point-blank with rifles, pistols, and machine guns. Had they killed just as many over a larger area in a longer period of time and killed impersonally with bombs, shells, rockets, white phosphorous, and napalm, they would have been following the normal pattern of American military conduct. The soldier and the junior officer observed the lack of regard his superiors had for the Vietnamese. The value of Vietnamese life was systematically cheapened in his mind…. The military leaders of the United States, and the civilian leaders who permitted the generals to wage war as they did, had made the massacre inevitable.”²

Sheehan’s words indict the worst of leadership that arise through unhealthy masculine energy. Be it military or civilian, local, state, or national, such leadership renders inevitable, or at least highly likely, horrors such as My Lai in 1968; the mutilation and slaughter of Cheyenne men, women, and children at Sand Creek in 1864; the massacre of Lakota men, women, and children at Wounded Knee in 1890; the more than 6,000 lynchings of blacks between 1865 and 1950; the incineration of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood district in 1921; the degradations of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in the post-9/11 war on terror; and the incessant gun violence in the U.S. Among other examples.

In response to a school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, two members of the U.S. House of Representatives³ created Christmas photo cards, posing their families holding assault rifles in front of Christmas trees in 2021 in support of the weapons commonly used in U.S. Congress-enabled mass shootings. Evidently, these folks were channeling the intersection of what Jesus meant when he said “Love one another,”⁴ and what the framers had in mind when they penned the Second Amendment.

That’s a small sample of evidence regarding the inevitability of our current culture of violence. What about greed and excess, you ask? A country built on slave and peasant labor, sweatshops, migrant workers, and now cheap international labor renders inevitable a 2022 second quarter report that the wealthiest 1% of Americans own 31.1% of the nation’s wealth; the top 10% own 68%; and the bottom 50% own 3.2% (the 40% of Americans who fall between the bottom 50% and the top 10% own 28.9%). Said differently, the top 10% of Americans own more than twice (68%) of what the bottom 90% own (32%). This is like saying that the folks in Texas and Montana (together about 10% of the nation’s population) own more than twice as much wealth as the rest of the country. In a nation where owning and having things is important, this is a big deal.

Here’s one more juxtaposition: the defense industry — those companies that build and maintain the weapons and infrastructure of war and everyday violence, and the insurance-pharmaceutical-medical-government-finance-lobbying industry (euphemistically referred to as healthcare in the U.S.) are both for-profit endeavors. Need more deterrence, want to go to war, or choose to keep assault weapons available to our huddled masses? Cha-ching. Need to attend to the physical and psychological effects of war, everyday violence, and active shooter drills for school children? Cha-ching. Need to make sure none of this changes? Have more lobbyists in D.C. (more than 700) than there are members of Congress (currently 535 when all seats are filled).

The above are selected, limited examples, painted with broad brush strokes. For more specific information, see Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow.


  1. Briefly: 1619 (initial delivery of enslaved Africans to what is now Virginia by the British); 1776 (U.S. Declaration of Independence); 1787 (U.S. Constitution); 1830 (Congress passes “Indian Removal” Act); 1865 (Civil War ends; 13th Amendment passed); 1868 (14th Amendment passed; Second Fort Laramie Treaty); 1920 (19th Amendment passed); 1945 (U.S. drops two atomic bombs on Japan; World War II ends); 1964 (Civil Rights Act passed); 2001 (September 11 terrorist attacks on U.S.); 2003 (U.S. preemptively attacks Iraq).
  2. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 689–90.
  3. Lauren Boebert (R-Colorado) and Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky): https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/christmas-card-guns-lauren-boebert-thomas-massie-start-new-culture-ncna1285709
  4. For younger readers: Christmas began as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and had nothing to do with retail sales, garishly decorated real and fake trees, and assault weapons.

Healing America’s Narratives: What Am I Not Seeing?

Part of a series, this essay explores a subheading from Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.

In our previous three inquiries into subheaders from Chapter Eleven, “So, Now What?” we explored identitystory, and impact. Here we’ll consider what any one of us — or millions of us — might be missing with regard to our own lives and/or our country. “Shadow,” as it’s referred to throughout the book, is one reason, among others, an individual or a collective might not be seeing something.

There are various ways to work with Shadow.¹ One hint that an element of Shadow may be clamoring for our attention is if we notice a disproportionate emotional response to someone or something — especially if that response recurs. So, a recurrent, disproportionate, emotional response to someone or something we experience as being angry or lacking in compassion may be inviting us to explore our own anger or lack of compassion. Likewise, if we have such a response to someone or something we experience as exceptionally creative, generous, or successful, we may want to explore our own as-yet disowned creativity, generosity, or success.

Whether what we’re not seeing is considered positive or negative, recognizing, owning, and integrating it into our sense of self leads to a more integrated, “wholer,” fully human being.

Questions such as these may begin to uncover what might be repressed, denied, and projected:

1. What is it about this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream, such that I respond as I do?

2. What is it about me, such that I respond to this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream as I do?

3. To what extent do my reactions or responses feel disproportionate?

4. What might I be projecting onto this situation, person, event, issue, idea, emotion, or dream that I need to explore in myself?

The first question engages through an external locus of control. It helps begin to identify the source of the disproportionate response by looking toward something out there. Getting clearer about what that something is moves us closer to identifying Shadow — what we don’t yet see or know about ourselves.

The second question engages through an internal locus of control and is more challenging. It implicates us. What is it about me such that I respond as I do? Ooh, is my discomfort with his ease in expressing anger related to my unowned anger? Is my admiration for her success in the art world the result of my own as-yet-unrealized creative potential? What is it, exactly, that brings up my disproportionate response? Now, I’m curious. Repressing and projecting parts of ourselves requires energy. Owning and integrating what we repress and project frees up our energy for other aspects of life.

The third question invites us to authentically consider the extent to which our response is disproportionate to the reality of the situation, person, or thing. Honest, challenging, trusted friends may be helpful here.

The fourth question explores the quality, emotion, trait, or characteristic that may be repressed, denied, and projected. Sometimes we recognize it immediately, and perhaps experience a mix of relief, guilt, or simply, oh, THAT! Sometimes it may be slower to emerge — harder to see and even harder to own and integrate. Oh. That. Me? Lacking compassion? Nah. No way. For that one particular colleague/friend/sibling…? Um, perhaps, yes.

Working with Shadow can be discomfiting. Be kind to yourself.

  1. Among many, see Bill Plotkin’s Wild Mind (207–34) and Soulcraft (267–80); and Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abrams, eds. Meeting the Shadow (65 essays from a variety of authors).

Healing America’s Narratives: Everything Is a Story

Part of a series, this essay explores a subheading from Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.

Some of the story sources that inform Healing America’s Narratives

Everything Is a Story

Note your immediate response to this premise. Is it, ‘What do you mean — please explain?’ or, ‘Bullshit…?’ or ‘Du-uh, tell me something I don’t already know?’ Perhaps it’s ‘Thank you for confirming what I was beginning to see?’ Is it something else entirely? Whatever it is fine — it’s your story about the suggestion that everything is a story. Consider that if your response was in the general area of Bullshit.

The cultural givens handed down by our parents and earliest communities and experiences are stories. As (or if) we grow up, wake up, clean up, and show up, some stories hold up and some don’t. Sometimes the givens that don’t hold up were false when we received them and sometimes they were true — as far as anyone knew at the time — but the larger, always evolving community of truth learned more and disproved them when new evidence was found.¹ Doctors no longer recommend smoking cigarettes as a way to relax. Planet Earth is no longer considered the center of the universe.

The stories we choose to believe and tell, as well as the stories that choose us, are powerful. Being in the position to choose our stories and not be chosen by them carries power. Mary Catherine Bateson encourages us to exercise this power:

“…think about the creative responsibility involved in the fact that there are different ways to tell your stories. It’s not that one is true and another is not true. It’s a matter of emphasis and context…. The choice you make affects what you can do next.”²

So, let’s be thoughtful about the stories we choose to tell about who we (think we — and they) are. The choices we make and the stories we tell matter.

Consider the specific stories that inform(ed) your cultural givens. What holds up? What’s the most recent revision you’ve made, or that was made for you, where revision actually means re-vision — to see again? Look at the sweeping revisions, many ongoing, in the earlier essays in this series, and the specific, personal revisions shared therein, such as Robert McNamara’s ‘re-visioned’ view that owned the extent to which he and the other architects of the Vietnam war misjudged, underestimated, failed, and did not recognize a long list of people and ideas.

Such seeing again is never easy and always valuable when it moves the seer toward a more comprehensive, inclusive view. Malcolm X’s life stands as an exemplar of re-visioning. Two of his major re-visions — becoming a Muslim and joining the Nation of Islam while in prison and then leaving the Nation of Islam while remaining a Muslim after his 1964 Hajj — follow the developmental trajectory from a focus on me to a focus on us to a focus on all of us. In each case he changed his name and publicly recognized and owned his seeing again.³

How we tell our stories is as important as which stories we tell. Focus only on what’s wrong and get an “illness” story. Open up to the possibilities of moving through and beyond what’s wrong and tell or write a “healing” story. Adults model both of these for children: if the child who falls down the stairs and breaks an arm is confronted with parental overwhelm, blame, anger, and fear, an illness story emerges in which stairs are dangerous and the child is careless or clumsy; if the child is met with parental support, concern, acceptance, understanding, and love, a healing story emerges in which accidents can happen, stairs are useful and fine and best engaged with care, and the child is curious and open to experience.

Illness stories limit us, narrowly focus on a sense of wrongness, keep us stuck, and can reinforce trauma; healing stories open up the context in which we understand what happened (wrongness may be relevant, but not primary), they can expand and free us, and they can contribute to trauma recovery. Because they focus on what’s wrong, illness stories are often tidy, brief, stagnant, partial, and consistent. Because they emerge through and invite increasingly larger contexts, healing stories are often messy, ongoing, progressive, comprehensive, and paradoxical. Explore your stories. Be kind to yourself.

Writing can be engaged as a powerful process⁴ that helps open us up to increasingly larger contexts that allow us to see and feel as others see and feel — to go beneath all the individual differences, see another soul just like ourselves, and at the same time deeply understand and embody those differences. Going one step further, learning to embody and tell or write someone else’s story, both helps us understand the other and often provides clarity into our own narrative.⁵

Finally, if I’m truly playing an infinite game,⁶ some questions may arise at the intersection of “who am I, really?” and “everything is a story.” Try these questions on for size: Without the stories I hold and that hold me, who am I, and what’s true in this moment? Who am I and what does this moment offer without my story/ies? Ram Dass’s channels four and five point toward a prospective answer. John Tarrant, in Bring Me the Rhinoceros, put it this way:

“Everyone knows that some events are just bad and make you sad or angry, and some are good and make you glad. Yet what everyone knows might not be true. For example there might be a certain coercion to the attitude that weddings must be happy, funerals have to be sad. It could prevent you from meeting the moment you are in. What if events don’t have to be anything other than what they are?”⁷

We owe it to ourselves and each other to create and tell our stories with care.


1. See Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (Brookings Institution, 2021) for an expansive and passionate exploration of his book’s title and the “community of truth.”

2. Mary Catherine Bateson, “Composing a Life,” Sacred Stories: A Celebration of the Power of Stories to Transform and Heal. Eds. Charles & Anne Simpkinson, (HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 42–43.

3. M.S. Handler, “Malcolm Rejects Racist Doctrine,” New York Times, October 4, 1964, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/10/04/archives/malcolm-rejects-racist-doctrine-also-denounces-elijah-as-a.html; Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley, (New York: Ballantine, 1992).

4. James Pennebaker has led the way in decades of research that back this up. See his Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, co-authored with John Evans, (2014); and Opening Up: The Healing Power of Emotions (1990), among others. See also John Fox’s Poetic Medicine: The Healing Art of Poem-Making, (1997). There are many more resources available.

5. See Marra, Enough with the Talking Points, (2020), 79–82 for more on truly embodying another’s story. For a deeper dive into telling another’s story as if it were our own, see the work of Narrative 4, which uses “story exchange” to help young (and old) people develop empathy. (Some meeting “icebreaker” exercises skim the surface of this experience: two strangers briefly share who they are and then introduce each other to a group — speaking in first-person, as if they are the person they’re introducing. Narrative 4 goes deeper): https://narrative4.com/.

6. Inspired by James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility (Free Press-MacMillan, 1986). An infinite game is one in which the goals are to invite everyone to play and to keep the game going. A finite game is one in which the goal is to limit the players, win, and end the game.

7. John Tarrant, Bring Me the Rhinoceros, (Shambhala, 2008/2004), 113.

Healing America’s Narratives: Who Am I, Really?

Part of a series, this essay explores a question raised in Chapter Eleven of Healing America’s Narratives: The Feminine, the Masculine, & Our Collective National Shadow. Now available.

Amid the other-than-human world. Photo Copyright © by Reggie Marra

Who Am I, Really?

If you’re sure you know and are ready to dismiss the question, what follows may be a waste of your time — or exactly what you need. Here are five prospective responses. They are neither mutually exclusive nor exhaustive. Add your own.

1) I am a mystery that I explore more deeply every day.

2) I am a mix of elements that’s worth four or five bucks.

3) I am the result of the exploits of God, Adam, Eve, and that horrible snake.

4) I am a ___-year-old, ____-generation _______-American ___________ [ your occupation] from _________.

5) I am a child of the stars.

The identity story I choose (or that chooses me) provides a unique view of myself and the world and a wildly different array of possibilities for my need for healing, my views on Shadow, and life in general. Every human being in the history of humanity had a sense, clear or vague, conscious or unconscious, of who they (thought they) were. We’ll engage this question through three distinct, interrelated perspectives — Body-Mind (aka middleworld), Soul (aka underworld), and Spirit (aka upperworld).

Body-Mind, or middleworld, as used here, refers to our conventional, everyday lives. We do, think, and feel, and we recognize, to various degrees, the connections among doing, thinking, and feeling. Our thoughts and feelings impact what we do and vice versa. In terms of our who-am-I inquiry, the Body-Mind perspective encourages us to assess skills, strengths, likes, dislikes, and aspirations in order to identify with a job, social role, or occupation. We are educators, plumbers, nurses, stay-at-home-parents, and truck drivers, etc. From a Body-Mind perspective, our job may be a valid response to that pesky question famously asked by Mary Oliver, “…what is it that you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Turning toward Soul, we learn from eco-depth psychologist, Bill Plotkin, that our “soulwork…does not correspond to a job title.” Howard Thurman directs us to find “what makes [us] come alive.” Frederick Buechner refers to “the place where [our] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Harvey Swift Deer speaks of “sacred dance,” and William Blake wrote of being “organized by Divine Providence for Spiritual communion.”¹

These various takes on a similar theme begin to move us beyond job descriptions and earning an income (each of which has its place) toward a somewhat deeper inquiry. Plotkin and Swift Deer differentiate soulwork or sacred dance from survival work or survival dance, which, in no way deprecatory, simply refer to “our way of supporting ourselves physically and economically….”² Aptitude and career tests and other Body-Mind assessments can be useful for matching us with survival work we might enjoy, and rarely, if ever, address soulwork, sacred dance, deep gladness, spiritual communion, what brings us alive, or what poet David Whyte calls the “one life / you can call your own.”³

Plotkin works with Soul as an ecological, rather than a psychological or spiritual, entity, referring to it as one’s “ultimate place,” or one’s “unique ecological niche” (“eco-niche”).⁴ Discovering one’s ultimate place or unique ecological niche in the world feels very different from getting a really good job with good pay and benefits. Our task from a Soul perspective is to find and create delivery systems that allow us to “offer our unique gift to the world.”⁵ These delivery systems change as we develop and are not who we are. They may manifest as survival work, soulwork, or both. For example, writing, teaching, and coaching are among my delivery systems.

From a Spirit or upperworld perspective, self-inquiry has been around at least from the beginning of the Advaita Vedanta tradition as a means of exploring this question. One iteration guides us through asking and returning to the question, “Who am I?” in a way that gradually eliminates who and what I am not. When I notice what arises in awareness (externals like clouds, sore muscles, job title, and cars, and internals like emotions, thoughts, concepts, and beliefs), I objectify and eliminate what I am not, as in “This cloud arises in my awareness, but I am not this cloud,” “This thought arises in my awareness, but I am not this thought,” “This pain arises…but I am not this pain.” Eventually I may get curious about “in whose awareness does all of this arise?” Who is this observer/witness? Who am I, really? Of course, this observer, or witness, or awareness itself is just another thought or concept until and unless I directly experience it. Then all heaven can break loose, until I get distracted again.⁶

Body-Mind, Soul, and Spirit perspectives each offer something of value. The center of gravity of our democratic, capitalist, American culture privileges the Body-Mind, replaces or dilutes Spirit with conventional, middleworld religious beliefs and requirements that usually protect us from any direct experience of Spirit, and generally ignores Soul — as Plotkin has developed it — or uses it in a variety of often disparate ways.

Ram Dass, in his teachings on change, aging, and death, shared a metaphor for waking up through these who-am-I perspectives or states of consciousness: he asks us to imagine that we each have a built-in receiver that picks up planes of consciousness. Most of our American receivers are tuned to pick up just one or two of the available channels — channel one’s physical traits (shapes, sizes, and colors, etc.) and channel two’s moods, emotions, and social roles. We don’t pick up more because middleworld culture doesn’t teach us (or know) how to fully tune our receivers. Said differently our American culture’s center of gravity holds a Body-Mind/middleworld perspective. We have not, as a culture, learned to tune into, nor do we seem to value, the Soul- and Spirit-based perspectives available on channels three, four, and five.⁷

Of course, amid our cultural attunement to channels one and two, some individuals do have access to additional channels. What channels are you attuned to? What’s your view on all of this?

Which leads us to story…in the next essay.


¹Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, (Beacon, 1992), 94. Bill Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World, (New World Library, 2008), 316. Howard Thurman attribution: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2021/07/09/come-alive/. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, (HarperOne, 1993), 118–19. Harvey Swift Deer, in Plotkin, Nature…, 258. William Blake, The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, David V. Erdman, ed., (U of California P, 1981), 724.

²Plotkin, Nature and the Human Soul, 258.

³David Whyte, “All the True Vows,” The House of Belonging, (Many Rivers, 1997), 24.

⁴Plotkin, “ultimate place” in Nature and the Human Soul, 35–38; “unique ecological niche” in The Journey of Soul Initiation: A Field Guide for Visionaries, Evolutionaries, and Revolutionaries, (New World Library, 2021), 6–17. A 52-minute interview with Bill is available here (there are more): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOTaKXHMabM

⁵Plotkin, The Journey of Soul Initiation, 18.

⁶This paragraph is meant to be descriptive, not instructive. My encounter with self-inquiry began with the writings of David Frawley and Ken Wilber, which led me to Ramana Maharshi’s work. Here’s a link to Frawley’s writing from 1998: https://www.vedanta.gr/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Frawley_SelfInquiry_ENA5.pdf. Online references to self-inquiry are abundant and unequal. Inquirer beware.

⁷Ram Dass, “The Art Form of Dying,” Conscious Aging: On the Nature of Change and Facing Death, CD, (Sounds True, 1992), Disc 2, 2:50–6:25.

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.


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?


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/