In the perfectly integrated, comprehensive, inclusive, and balanced universe in which most of us do not (think we) live, we can hear the mystical cheerleaders’ rhythmic, enthusiastic, and obvious response echoing around the arena: EV-ree-one! Where most of us do think we live, it can be helpful to have a sense of who our people are — not in the unhealthy us-against-the-others sense that governs most finite games, but in the sense of realistically assessing how and with whom I might do the most good in the world as it is, with what I have to offer, without harming others, to the benefit of the whole shebang. Taking care of my, or our, little niche is often the best way to serve the greater good.
Often, the answer to this question lies not in some definitive choice we make but in our authentic attention to the intersections of who we think we are, the stories we choose, the impacts we both have and receive, and what we are able to uncover and own that we previously had not seen. While “my people” may be superficially identified, or at least narrowed down, through blood, geography, and chronology, they are inevitably found and known through experience, belief, and worldview. They include those I learn from and learn with and those who learn from me — whether the learning emerges in the classroom, on the street, at the checkout counter, in the healthcare office, at work, or at the kitchen table. Consider the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, as his writing led him into “contact with more human beings”:
“I had editors — more teachers — and these were the first white people I’d ever really known on any personal level. They defied my presumptions — they were afraid neither for me nor of me. Instead they saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed.”¹
The friends we choose and who choose us in childhood and adolescence, the groups we align with when we choose a craft, profession, or area of study (or one chooses us), and the individuals in our chosen craft, profession, or discipline towards whom we gravitate may provide insight and evidence about, but don’t necessarily define, “our people.” Many folks will come, stay for a while and go; others will come and stay. We begin to recognize some who stay, and even some who go, as our people.
As tempting as it can be to espouse an all-of-us perspective and claim everyone as our people (as those mystical cheerleaders did above), if we’re operating primarily from a Body-Mind identity, it is difficult to embody and live up to that claim — despite its value and attractiveness. Better to live in a healthy embodiment of who our people truly are right now, than to delude ourselves with an espoused, but not yet embodied and lived, self-aggrandizing claim.
Still, part of our intentional practice might be to “act as if” all humans are our people and to see how such practice impacts our sense of self, our beliefs about others, and our behavior.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (One World- Random House, 2015), 62.
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) yourcultural 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.
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.
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 presents the case that the mood of the United States of America in the third decade of the 21st century is inevitable when considered through the intersection of the lenses of history, developmental psychology, politics, and spirituality. Our current dysfunction, while worrisome, is not surprising.
More to the point, the nation is cursed and blessed with competing (not just different) narratives that, even at their most oppositional, share aspects of a collective Shadow — that which is denied, repressed, unknown, or unacknowledged, and projected onto others. America’s specific Shadow elements include ignorance, arrogance, fear, bigotry, bullying, violence, greed, excess, and untrustworthiness — each of which is present in varying degrees throughout history, amid current events, and across the political spectrum. These elements arise historically and currently through an unhealthy manifestation of masculine energy and a virtual absence of healthy feminine energy.
The book’s title and subtitle posit that in order to heal these narratives, Americans will have to recognize, own, and integrate our individual and collective Shadows. To heal, as used here, means coming to terms with things as they are — that is, accepting what is true, even if we don’t like it or we disagree with it. Healing begins when I accept that I just broke my arm (rather than railing against how it happened); curing or fixing commonly takes place with the help of an orthopedic surgeon. Each has its place.
In order to authentically heal it’s important that each of us comes to terms with our cultural givens and the extent to which we have accepted, revised, discarded, or developed beyond them. “Cultural givens” refers to the view of the world given to us during our earliest years by family, community, schooling, and religion, or lack thereof — all within the context of the time and place of our birth. In order to become healthy adults, it’s necessary to question what we’re given as kids, and then choose to accept, revise, or discard it based on our own direct experience of the world.
This questioning can be exhilarating at best and terrifying at worst. Paying attention to several qualities can help us as we question. Briefly:
Skillful means invites the mechanic to tighten the bolt just enough without stripping the threads, and the surgeon to make the incision just deep and long enough (and on the correct patient). It requires us to interact with children in developmentally and chronologically appropriate ways.
Development, as used here, reminds us that how we view the world impacts what we see and how we see it. Here’s some developmental shorthand: it’s all about me; it’s all about my group(s); it’s all about all of us (humans); it’s all about all that it is (the planet and beyond). To make this even more fun, each of those four ways of seeing can manifest in healthy or unhealthy iterations.¹ Each successive view interprets a given event from an increasingly inclusive, comprehensive, and complex perspective.
Intentional practice reminds us that habitual thoughts and behaviors impact who and how we are. It makes sense to intentionally practice who and how we want to be.
Seek the broadest, deepest view available in any given set of circumstances (or at least when it makes sense to do so). Why would you choose to be narrow and shallow in your perspective?²
Honor the power and paradox of silence. Silencing the voices of others is a time-tested tool of oppression; intentionally practicing silence for oneself is often at the heart of insight, growth, and transformation.
Truth, in a given moment, is fact- and evidence-based and separate from opinion and how evidence is interpreted. In the words of Parker J. Palmer, over time, “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter conducted with passion and discipline.”³
Love is perhaps the most powerful energy we know. In the book, love has the following traits: “the joyful acceptance of belonging”; “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”;and the absence of fear.⁴
Evidence of America’s Shadow elements is provided in chapters three through ten of the book. Deciding which evidence and how much of it to present was a challenge. Chapters three through seven, respectively, provide very brief, selective histories of women; Native Americans; African Americans; the war in Vietnam; and the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — each of which deserves (and gets elsewhere) more attention than it gets. The rationale for these choices is provided in the book. Chapter Eight provides additional examples of Shadow, every one of which also deserves more attention than it gets. Chapter Nine brings Shadow into our current century in an exploration of polarized, woke, and cancel cultures, and Chapter Ten argues that the 45th president of the United States personally embodies all nine Shadow elements.
Chapters eleven and twelve begin the process of exploring ways out of our current mess, and will be sampled in more detail in forthcoming essays.
So, the book explores nine elements of America’s collective Shadow through selected historical and developmental perspectives on the nation’s 246 years of existence. The exploration is presented through the author’s (my) particular worldview, which is made clear in chapters one, eleven, and twelve. It is not (obviously) an exhaustive history of the country or a final word on any of the narratives it explores; it is an evidence-based exposition of America’s competing narratives and collective Shadow and a guidebook for those interested in healing the narratives and integrating the Shadow.
It’s definitely not for the closedminded and probably not for the faint of heart.
¹The “developmental shorthand” (me;my group(s);all of us (humans); and all that it is (the planet and beyond) are explored more deeply in the text and the endnotes. Regarding healthy or unhealthy manifestations, none of these views is right or wrong; rather, when healthy, they are increasingly inclusive, balanced, and complex. These four are significant reductions of what’s available to humans.
²Also developed further in the text and endnotes, this broadest, deepest view is based in Ken Wilber’s work, and includes considering individual values, beliefs, and behaviors; collective (relational/cultural) values and beliefs; and the natural and human-made environments, systems, and infrastructures within which we live and upon which we have impact.
³Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, (Jossey-Bass, 1998), 104.
⁴ “the joyful acceptance of belonging,” Br. David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer, (Paulist, 1984), 167;“the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth,” M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled, (Simon & Schuster, 1978), 81; and “the absence of fear,” based on Marianne Williamson’s reflections on A Course in Miracles, in her A Return to Love, (HarperPaperbacks, 1993).
Decades before the 2003 U. S. invasion of Iraq, the United States invaded Vietnam — initially with “advisors” and eventually with bombs, troops, and bullets. After its defeat in World War II, Japan was forced to leave the former French colony, Indochina — as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were then known — which it had occupied during the war. After Japan’s departure, France’s attempt to reassert control of the area was thwarted by popular support for Ho Chi Minh. Under his leadership, on September 2, 1945, the “Proclamation of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” emerged. It borrowed language and concepts from both the American and French revolutions, and it listed grievances against the French colonizers in 1945, much as the British colonists, who would eventually identify as Americans, had done against their British governors in 1776. The Vietnamese proclamation begins:
“‘We hold truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’” This immortal statement is extracted from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. Understood in the broader sense, this means: “‘All peoples on the earth are born equal; every person has the right to live to be happy and free.’”¹
In 1945 and 1946 Ho Chi Minh wrote repeatedly to President Truman and other world leaders, and at least once to the United Nations, asking for humanitarian aid because some two million Vietnamese had died of starvation in the final years of World War II. The U. S. president, the other leaders and the United Nations did not respond. Ho concluded that “We apparently stand quite alone; we shall have to depend on ourselves.”² When the French began their eight-year war against Ho Chi Minh’s government and its followers in 1946, the U. S., first under Truman and then under Eisenhower, helped arm the French and financed most of the French effort.
With the 1949 Communist victory in China, and the faith that the Viet Minh had in Ho Chi Minh, the U. S. articulated and began to act on the “domino” theory — that if one Southeast Asian country were to succumb to Communism, the rest would follow suit, and that if free elections were allowed, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia would be controlled by Communists. Said differently, the U. S. wanted to stop the possible spread of Communism in the region by preventing free democratic elections.
In April 1953 President Eisenhower had delivered his “The Chance for Peace” speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Widely known as the “Cross of Iron” speech, it celebrates the end of World War II, warns of the Soviet Union’s post-war behaviors, and argues both against the costs of war and for hope, freedom, and democracy. It also includes, less famously than the cross of iron metaphor, these five precepts:
First: No people on earth can be held, as a people, to be enemy, for all humanity shares the common hunger for peace and fellowship and justice.
Second: No nation’s security and well-being can be lastingly achieved in isolation but only in effective cooperation with fellow-nations.
Third: Any nation’s right to form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable.
Fourth: Any nation’s attempt to dictate to other nations their form of government is indefensible.
And fifth: A nation’s hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations.³
Beginning almost immediately, and continuing for the next twenty-plus years in Vietnam and in various places around the globe to the present day, the United States would violate Eisenhower’s first, third, fourth, and fifth precepts, and engage an ongoing national debate about the second. The Soviets and Chinese would exacerbate the situation, but they didn’t claim to adhere to these same precepts.
Under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy the U.S. first ignored and then incrementally opposed Ho Chi Minh in the north; set up, supported, and eventually disposed of Ngo Dinh Diem in the south; and increased the presence and levels of engagement of U. S. military advisors. President Johnson, with the financial blessings of Congress, then officially sent U. S. combat forces to Vietnam without declaring war. Johnson and Nixon each escalated specific aspects of the undeclared war both on the ground and in the air. As we know, it didn’t end well.
More than 58,000 Americans, and depending how the counting is done, some three million Vietnamese combatants and civilians lost their lives during the war. Millions more on both sides died due to poisoning from the defoliant Agent Orange.
In 1995 former secretary of defense Robert McNamara published In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,⁴ in which he explored eleven lessons learned. He would elucidate another set of lessons in his conversation with director Errol Morris in the 2003 film, The Fog of War.⁵The architects of America’s policies and war in Vietnam ignored Eisenhower’s precepts. The post-9/11 architects of America’s policies and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would go on to ignore Eisenhower’s precepts and both sets of McNamara’s lessons learned — which we’ll explore in the next essay. The office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) would eventually publish What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction⁶inAugust 2021.
I’ll leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions about political and military lessons learned since World War II.
²Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, (New York: Random House, 1988), 148–53. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999/1980),469–71. Sheehan puts the number of letters and telegrams from Ho Chi Minh to Truman and his Secretary of State at eleven over an 18-month period and notes that Britain, China and the Soviet Union also ignored his requests for help at the time. China and the Soviets would later provide financial and military assistance when the U.S. began financing France’s efforts. “We apparently stand quite alone; we shall have to depend on ourselves,” Sheehan, 149. Zinn includes an excerpt from one of Ho’s letters, 470–71. The U.S. State Department classified and locked away the correspondence, which would not become public until the publication of the Pentagon Papers, Sheehan, 152–53.
In the conventional history of the United States, we tend not to hear or read too much about the actual moments of invasion of African communities, the violent kidnappings, the wretched conditions for those who made it onto the ships, the watery graves of those who died in transport, the felt experience of any one of these human beings amid those unimaginable episodes, and the many subsequent episodes of being bought and sold and charged with forced, unpaid, backbreaking daily labor. That sentence itself does a feeble job of capturing the enormity of the horror inherent in these acts.
Amid our current cacophony of divisive voices screaming at each other through often narrow, partial views regarding race, racism, antiracism, critical race theory, and whose lives matter, it’s essential to remember how we got where we seem to be and to consider where we may be going from here.
Remember that, in order to convince slave state planter-politicians to sign what would become the U.S. Constitution — providing them with additional seats in the House of Representatives and additional electoral votes in presidential elections based on the number of enslaved humans they owned — the “three-fifths compromise” effectively valued each enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being. These individuals, who had been torn from their homes and their families, were deemed to be worth 60% of a full human being for tax and representation (of their owners) purposes. Without slave labor, wealthy plantation owners and politicians would not have fared as well as they did — if fare well they would have at all.
Remember that the Emancipation Proclamations in 1862 and 1863 announced but could not enforce the freedom of formerly enslaved people.
Remember that the 13th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, which made slavery unlawful in 1865, was followed almost immediately by the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, and remember that the U. S. was among the last of the slave-trading and slave-owning countries to ban both trading and owning enslaved human beings.¹
Remember that the 14th Amendment in 1868 guaranteed citizenship to any person born or naturalized in the United States, prevented any state from depriving citizens of life, liberty, or property without due process and from denying any citizen equal protection of the laws. Notice and remember that 150-plus years later, our nation still struggles to manifest this particular destiny of equality.
Remember that the 15th Amendment in 1870, which granted formerly enslaved males the right to vote, was followed by decades of lynchings, beatings, local Jim Crow policies, and Black Code laws, especially in the South. Remember that such abominations prevented U.S. citizens from exercising their right to vote (and other rights) — through threats and violence, convict leasing, and low level bureaucracy that included “testing” that no white man, including the testers themselves, had to endure or could have passed as a prerequisite to voting.²
Consider that, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950 some 4,425 lynchings of blacks by whites occurred in the United States.³ In the previous twelve years — euphemistically referred to as Reconstruction, an additional 2,000 lynchings took place, including thirty-four mass lynchings.⁴ Historically, lynchings have included beatings, burnings, shootings, stabbings, hangings, and other torture, sometimes in combination, and were often announced in advance in local newspapers and on posters, and attended by hundreds and sometimes thousands of white spectators, including children.
Fast forward to the third decade of the twenty-first century and one disturbing observation (among many): it’s a step in the right direction that a white police officer, Derrick Chauvin, was found guilty of murdering George Floyd, who was black, and that Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan, all of whom are white, were found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a black man. Had these two murders been the first of their kind — outside any historical context — they would warrant our outrage and grief. That they occurred in the historical context of two-hundred-plus years of American proclamation, declaration, legislation, and opinion regarding discrimination is the catalyst for tens of thousands of individuals gathering and grieving in public, and not just in the United States, in the name of equal protection and justice.
Yes, we have made progress as a nation, and we still have much work to do. Both are true. For an expansion of this essay that includes a more detailed look at race in the U.S. military, critical race theory, and antiracism in the context of collective Shadow, see Chapter Five in Healing America’s Narratives.
Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America, 39–47. These pages provide statistics along with some narrative. The volume’s 90 pages provide a searing look into its title and is also available online: https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/
Some five-hundred-plus years ago, European explorers began bumping into land masses now known as South, Central, and North America and the islands of the Caribbean. The indigenous inhabitants of these areas include the Taíno, Aztec, Lakota, Yucatán, Iroquois, Inca, Nez Perce, Huron, Apache, Cherokee, Navajo, Olmec, Inuit, Toba, Quechua and Chibcha, among many, many more.
These peoples had been on these lands for some 10,000 to 20,000 years when the English, Spanish, Portuguese, and French met, interacted with, and eventually colonized them.¹ Slaughter, rape, removal, and betrayal often characterized the colonization process, which in contemporary parlance is a literal cancelation of people and culture. The invaders interpreted what was different as “lesser” (or, as some might say today, not “woke”) and perceived the unfamiliar humans as “innocents,” “savages,” or both.
A pattern emerged: arrival, intrusion, violence, commerce, acquisition of land through treaty, and acquisition of more land through violence and treaty betrayal. As more Europeans arrived or as something of value was discovered in or on the land, the Europeans and then the Americans broke treaties and took what they wanted.
In his enforcement of the 1830 “Act to provide for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi,” Indian killer, slaveowner and president, Andrew Jackson, promised that “There, beyond the limits of any State, in possession of land of their own, which they shall possess as long as the Grass grows or water runs. I will protect them and be their friend and father.”² Estimates put the total number of humans removed during the 1830s at around 100,000, with 15,000 deaths along the way.³ Said differently, an infant, a child, a woman, or a man was forced to leave home 100,000 times and travel hundreds of miles in horrible conditions. More specifically, some 2,858 refugees were forced to travel some 1,200 miles by steamboat and some 12,496 were forced to travel by foot and wagon for 2,050 miles over three different routes.⁴ Their friend and father didn’t protect them.
That’s a synopsis of one example. Here’s a list of several more, among many: the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 (broken amid a gold rush shortly after it was signed); the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre and the retaliatory 1866 Fetterman Massacre; the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 (broken in 1874 with the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and again in 1877 with the Congressional “act to ratify an agreement with certain bands of the Sioux Nation of Indians and also with the Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne Indians” in direct violation of Article XII of the 1868 treaty, effectively taking the Black Hills without consent of 75% of adult male Indians).⁵
By 1890, the 60 million acres of the Great Sioux Reservation, as identified in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, had been reduced to about 22 million acres in 1877 due to government’s and prospectors’ interest in gold and other minerals, and then further reduced to 12.7 million acres through the Dawes (General Allotment) Act of 1887. The Dawes Act ended the tribes’ communal holding of land and allotted set acreage to individual Indians, who were required to farm the land for twenty-five years. Any land that was not so allotted would be sold to the public.⁶
Less than thirty years after the 1890 slaughter of some 150 children, women, and men at Wounded Knee, Choctaw men whose parents and grandparents had been removed from their land in the 1830s enlisted to fight in World War I and became the first “Code Talkers,” using their native language so enemy spies could not understand messages. Some thirty-three tribes, most famously the Navajo, would similarly serve in World War II.
Fast forward to 1980: the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in 1877 the U.S. government had in fact illegally taken the Black Hills in violation of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty. The ruling upheld a 1979 Court of Claims decision that called on the U. S. to pay $17.5 million plus 5% annual interest, which at the time totaled about $106 million. The Sioux refused to take the settlement, which is now worth more than $1 billion, asserting that the land was never for sale, that money was not just compensation, and that the value of the gold, timber, and other resources removed from the area is significantly greater than the money offered.⁷ The issue remains unresolved in 2022.
True for a boy as well, a girl born in 1774, 1862, 1917, 1963, 1971, 2001, 2017, 2022,* or any other year received cultural givens and expectations that were unique to the time, place, and familial, ethnic, racial, and financial circumstances of her birth and childhood. That she was born a biological female provided an additional given that would impact what was expected of and available to her.
While an investigation of any aspect of our collective national Shadow discloses disturbing manifestations of what we refuse to see in ourselves, the fear of the feminine and the subjugation of women are both disturbing manifestations and foundational elements of America’s Shadow. More to the point, it is the persistent absence of the qualities of the healthy feminine, further undermined by the relentless presence of the qualities of the unhealthy masculine, that encourages and amplifies and may very well be the primary cause of America’s collective Shadow. Specifying “healthy” and “unhealthy” above is essential to this argument.
The feminine, as used here, tends more toward a concern with care, embrace, collaboration, mercy, and compassion, among other traits; the masculine tends more toward a focus on rights, independence, individualism, justice, and wisdom. While this not an exhaustive list, notice that each tendency, whether it’s considered feminine or masculine, can be beneficial in its healthy manifestation and that all of them are descriptive, not prescriptive: we can observe them, but we’re not suggesting that any woman or man is “supposed to” embody the respective feminine or masculine tendencies in a certain way.
While the historical subjugation of women is visible to any honest person who is willing to look, the fear of the feminine manifests in less obvious ways. This essay posits that those men who primarily manifest unhealthy versions ofmasculine traits like rights, independence, individualism, justice and wisdom — which historically have resulted in dominance over, violence against, and subjugation of women and others — often fear healthy feminine traits like relationship, care, mercy, and compassion as emasculating rather than integrating. More specifically, cisgender, heterosexual males who historically have been conditioned to “be men” (i.e. stereotypically unhealthy masculine) experience both a strong attraction to the power of the feminine in women and a fear-of-emasculation-based aversion to the feminine in themselves. They mistake healthy feminine-masculine integration as emasculation, which terrifies them, so they subjugate what they fear.
The white, British, Christian, male founders and earliest leaders of the United States were captives of their cultural givens (as we all are of our own). Their Bill of Rights did not explicitly demonstrate any care about or for women; their Declaration of Independence did not embrace women; their proclamations of freedom and justice for all included no mercy for women, and the significant wisdom inherent in the Constitution they framed lacked compassion for women. These statements are true as well for the Africans they kidnapped, brought here, and enslaved, for their enslaved descendants, and for the native peoples whom they betrayed, expelled, and slaughtered.
And, yes, it’s easy to look from the third decade of the twenty-first century with the benefit of much of what these founders gave us and invited us to subsequently discover and amend, and point out where we think they came up short. They had the benefit of neither the documents they created nor the learnings from subsequent fits and starts of implementing those documents, as we do, in our 246 years of history. Their documents remain remarkable; their human shortcomings were real. Both are true. We have progressed in our movement toward equality for women; we still have a long way to go. Both are true.
*Selected (among many) years that directly or indirectly impacted the lives of girls and women:
1774: two years before the nation’s ‘birth’;
1862: the Emancipation Proclamations & three years before the Thirteenth Amendment freed enslaved women (and men);
1917: three years before the Nineteenth Amendment would give women the right to vote;
1963: two years before the Voting Rights Act would begin to enforce the Nineteenth Amendment, especially in the former slave states;
1971: a year before Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 would make it illegal to discriminate based on sex in any educational or federally funded program;
2001: the September 11 attacks impacted the direction of the country for women, girls, men, and boys;
2017: a record number of women decide to run for Congress, and most of them win in 2018, many in response to the behavior of the U.S. president;
2022: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York continues her efforts, begun in 2013, to change the way sexual assault cases in the U.S. military are adjudicated.
Read or listen to this post on Medium (4 minutes).
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.