Entries in action (2)


WHAT IF? (Part 3a: What if we owned our shadows?)


       Holding Onto the Shadow Self.   © Loretta Mae Hirsch   Used by permission of artist.

This is not the post I planned to write today.

I thought I was going to write about something else, but after about an hour at my computer, I hit a dead end. I have a bunch of ideas, an outline, pages of notes, but I can’t fit the pieces together. The harder I try, the more stuck I get. And as I get stuck, I get more and more frustrated. So of course, I do what I know best—I keep trying harder.

As I am struggling to find a path through this confusion, I hear a motor start up outside and an intermittent hissing sound. I step out the door to see two people swathed in yellow hazmat suits, complete with full headgear and respirators, spraying a young hazelnut orchard planted in recent years next to Tom's parent's house.

As I watch them driving their cart filled with metal tanks, dowsing the trees in God-knows-what just a short distance from our trailer, I am livid. Any thought about loving my neighbor or accepting the world as it is flies out the window in my fury at the utter arrogance of our approach to this planet. At how everything is geared to efficiency and appearances. That anyone could think that there was anything healthy about a field of bare dirt in someplace as lush as the Willamette Valley. Or about spraying something all over our food that requires a hazmat suit to apply. Or that our perfect nuts are worth destroying every insect (and the chain of creatures that feed on them). I feel sick. MY home has been invaded, my little island of privacy and safety and peace, and it is no step at all to imagine how all the other creatures in that field feel. And worst of all, I have no voice—it’s someone else’s neighbor’s property and they can do what they want with it. What I feel like doing—running screaming at them to STOP IT—would get me nowhere.

Gone is any plan I had for the day to continue writing about good will and tolerance. This may be nature expressing itself as a pest-control service, but I am having none of it.

The irony of the timing of this is not lost on me.

The day goes on and they continue their work in the field—the silver mist of spray floating out in the breeze, the psssst of the nozzle, the rattle of the engine. A series of other unfortunate events doesn’t help my mood and late in the day I break down crying and ask Tom to help me sort through my feelings. What I discover as I talk about the day is that I am using the same words to describe the men in the field as I am using to describe my own behavior this morning trying to write this post.

“We get so focused on achievement or efficiency or perfection that we aren’t attending to the real needs.”

This is my first clue to the deeper layers of what is happening.

Just the night before, I had read that when conflict arises, the first work to do is inside ourselves. In this case, the first thing I am finding in my intense emotional reaction is something that I didn’t see in myself. In Jung’s word, part of my “shadow”— all the things I haven’t accepted or admitted to in myself.

When I was writing this morning I was not paying attention to what I needed (time to think, a calmer brain, perhaps some help) I was just focused on meeting the deadline I had set and how to construct a rational argument. I was ignoring the real needs, like honesty or connection.

So part of the shadow was that what I was reacting to “outside” myself was a mirror for what was inside.

But the deeper shadow work is not just about sheepishly admitting to my behavior, as though it was a fault to apologize for and improve on next time. This is just as much a quest for perfection as the original projection. Claiming my shadow also means recognizing that not only do I possess whatever I am condemning outside of me, but that I actually “need” those qualities to be a whole human being. That I need access to my arrogance, my thoughtlessness, and my will to power in order to be a whole person. That claiming my anger, my fear, and my violence is necessary. If I don’t acknowledge all these things as existing in me, and existing as a part of a full spectrum, then my choice about how to behave is actually no choice at all. It is just repression of everything that I don’t like, as though I could choose one side of a polarity and live there. And things that get repressed, tend to come up sideways eventually.

What if I claimed my own capacity for destruction? Or the ways in which I am thoughtlessly efficient? Or just my own basic will to live, which always comes at the expense of other life?

What if I owned my fear?

I started writing these posts as a response to my fear. I am concerned about wildlife habitat, the health of the earth, the future of human society. Most of all, I am concerned about the polarizing nature of much of the conversation surrounding these issues. The primary question on my mind is: how do we address the issues we face without creating more “us and them” energy?

Owning this part of my shadow helps me to address the “us and them” division that lives inside my own head.

But though I am less reactive now, I honestly feel no closer to knowing how to respond to the hazelnut sprayers than when I started.

As I am wrestling with this, trying to figure out how to finish this post, I find myself getting frustrated again—I feel that familiar "pushing" stance where I try harder and harder with fewer and fewer results. This time, though, I notice. And I do something different.

I stop.

Let’s go do something else for awhile, I say to myself, and decide to go cut up an old sheet for a rag rug I am making. Cutting a long straight strip of cloth is the perfect mind relaxant, and as I focus, my thoughts settle and the path forward clears.

I began this series with the idea that help can appear when least expected. And what I realize is that this small invasion of my life in the form of the hazelnut sprayers is actually the help I need right now. Getting triggered into my own “us and them” thinking is not a distraction from these posts; it is a real live test case for the ideas I am working out. It is the perfect opportunity to learn by doing.

I don’t have to have all the answers; I can just stay open, follow my responses to this event, and see where they lead me. And this basic trust—in myself and in the process—opens up some ideas to try next.

       Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow.    Used by permission of artist Amy Bogard

Knowing this is enough for today.

(to be continued...)


WHAT IF? (Introduction: You never know what you'll find in an RV park)

          Boromir's Death — used by permission of Anke Eissmann

I have recently been reading about models for the future that don’t have happy endings: the possible collapse of our current economy and food production; wild unpredictable variations in climate; the extinction of large numbers of species on earth, our own species included. None of these global scenarios leave me feeling like any of my actions have much effect.

It is easy in the face of this kind of information to either deny that anything is happening, collapse in despair, or adopt a kind of the-Hell-with-it attitude and go about business as usual. I can say (from personal experience) that while these strategies provide some immediate relief, none of them satisfy in any meaningful way.

A couple weeks ago I happened to pick up The Two Towers—Tolkien’s second book in The Lord of the Rings—from an RV-park book exchange, and started reading it again while I was waiting for a load of laundry to finish. The book begins with despair. The group of “peoples” charged with the task of destroying the ring is in shambles. Gandalf is dead, Borimor has tried to steal the ring for himself and has been killed by attacking Orcs. Frodo and Sam have struck out on their own, two small hobbits against all the might of Mordor. The other two hobbits have been taken prisoner by the attacking Orcs. And Aragorn, who wasn’t there to help with any of the fighting, is left with Legolas and Gimli (and his aching conscience) to lay Borimer to rest and decide what to do next.

Aragorn feels the tragedy of their plight deeply. He recognizes that he has failed in his duty, he doubts the ability of any of them to succeed in their goals, and he mourns the deceit and untimely death of Borimer. He is clear-eyed and open-hearted in his assessment, and he is honest about it with his two friends.

And yet in the midst of his grief and doubt he is able to act with integrity. When he has fully felt the despair of their situation, he returns to his own inner values and chosen commitments, and uses these as compass points to make decisions at a time when decisions could seem futile. This leads him to act, not necessarily in the ways that are "biggest" or "best", but in the ways that are most "him"—in the ways that are most true to his own abilities and place in the world.

For example, he doesn’t follow the ring-bearer, though he was charged with his protection. Frodo—he reasons—has made his own decision. Merry and Pippin, who were carried off as prisoners, did not. Aragorn is “responsible” in a way to all of them, yet he cannot be all places at once, so he chooses to follow Merry and Pippin for the time being, because to him their need is greatest.

And once this decision is made he acts on it. It is true to him, and he is true to it. He can’t know, will never know, if it is the “right” decision; all he knows is that his insides and his outsides are in agreement.

I can think of worse models for personal action in our current world than this man of Middle Earth.

And once again, I am reminded of how help can appear when least expected. Even in the middle of a long afternoon in the dingy laundry room of some RV park in Winnemucca, Nevada.


Tom and I have been thinking a lot over the past three years about our place in the world, both individually and as a species. It is no little subject, and I am struggling to put the pieces together into a whole.

This next series of posts—which I have called “What if?”—is my attempt to bring together some of the ideas I have been mulling over. I think of these ideas as sparks from a fire I am stirring late at night. Maybe they flicker out and don’t go anywhere. Maybe they flare up, create a larger blaze. Maybe they illuminate something for just a moment in the corner of my vision. This is a place where I can poke around in the embers, see what happens. Where I can ask that potent question: What if?

Reading about Aragorn helped me realize that writing these posts is my next action. It is definitely not the biggest or best action. As I am sitting in front of my computer all morning it may look like no action at all. But working out my thoughts is what’s in front of me. It's my way to be in integrity—to match my insides and my outsides. And like Aragorn, I am not sure where following these thoughts will lead.

I don’t expect, or even want, everyone to agree with what I have to say. In times of change we need all of our perspectives in order to be adaptable and to see the big picture. We need more richness rather than less. And in order to have that richness, each part of the system needs to be true to what it is. We need our heart cells to be heart cells and our liver cells to be liver cells. I am not sure what kind of cell I am, but this is the view from my perspective. I am interested to hear the view from yours.

What if.......?