Light and Shadow

Challenges in religious and spiritual life

Gifts of the Shadow

In nature and in daily life, there’s beauty in the interplay of light of shadow.

After sifting through possible names for this blog, I settled on Light and Shadow—not Light and Darkness, not Black and White. My first entry, “Surprised by the Light: Lessons from a Junkyard,” focused on the light. In this entry I'd like to explore some ideas about shadow.

It's true that shadows are dark places, at least in relative terms. But a shadow also implies the presence of light. Shadows form when something gets in the way, blocking the light. Our experiences of shadow aren’t limited to the physical world; they can carry into the psychological and spiritual side of life as well. 

Sometimes spiritual shadows take on a sinister cast. We may seek out the shadows in an attempt to hide from the light. We may want to indulge some hidden addiction or to keep some dirty little secret. Fearing that our deeds will be exposed, we duck into dark alleys. These tendencies to hide may be especially strong if we believe in a harsh, rejecting, and unforgiving God. If we fear divine scrutiny and punishment, we will probably work hard to keep ourselves—or at least our secret sins—obscured in the shadows. Sometimes we can't even admit to ourselves that we are doing nasty things or thinking ugly thoughts. We do our best to sweep our offenses under the rug, desperately trying to hide them from the light of our own consciousness.

 

The light could also represent a new idea or way of thinking, one that challenges us to see ourselves, others, or even the universe in a different way. This new input could take many forms: a different belief system, a scientific finding or theory, a fresh experience of the divine, or a profound insight about oneself. After considering this new idea or experience, we may find that our beliefs start to shift underfoot. Such changes can be exciting, but it can also be pretty scary to find a core belief shaken. What if the new idea is wrong? What if we embrace a new set of beliefs, only to find ourselves ridiculed by others? Who wants to deal with all of these complications, anyway? Sometimes it’s just easier to run for the shadows. 

But shadow experiences don’t always mean that people are trying to hide from the light. In psychological and spiritual terms, experiences of shadow have some good things to offer. 

Contrasts between light and shadow can help to orient us to a visual scene, giving us a sense of perspective. This same idea can apply to the moral or spiritual side of life, too. People often search for a moral compass to guide their actions. Of course, there are situations where we need to pay attention to subtle nuances and shades of gray. But in other cases, exposure to something that seems truly wrong—perhaps even evil—will provide a sense of clear moral guidance. (“Well, it’s got to be wrong to do THAT! What’s in the opposite direction from THAT? That’s where I should go.”)

There’s also a certain beauty to be found in shadow experiences—those in which we suffer painful losses or question our beliefs, for example. In their subtle and intricate forms, blends of light and shadow add a sense of texture and depth. They press us toward nuance and complexity rather than the monotony of a one-size-fits-all, colorless view of the world.

Intense contrasts of light and shadow add a sense of drama, something that the Baroque artists knew well. And let’s face it, there’s something enticing about a little drama, whether it takes the form of romantic visions, heroic journeys, or cosmic battles of good and evil.

 

Noticing the shadows may also draw our attention back to the light source that caused them. Even if we can’t fully see or understand the light source, we may at least be compelled to search for it. The unanswered questions, the dreams, the mystery…these are a vital part of what keeps the quest going. Isn’t life supposed to be an adventure?

 

Julie Exline, Ph.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. She is a licensed psychologist and a certified spiritual director.

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