It is by going down into the abyss
that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble,
there lies your treasure.
The very cave you are afraid to enter
turns out to be the source of
what you are looking for.
The damned thing in the cave
that was so dreaded
has become the center.
You find the jewel,
and it draws you off.
In loving the spiritual,
you cannot despise the earthly.
One day Miss Berry, my first grade teacher, announced that in a few days we would go to the school nurse. She would prick our finger, squeeze out a drop of blood, and apply it to a glass slide. Then we would come back to our room. It wouldn’t really hurt very much she said. Just a momentary pinprick. We must take these permission slips home, have them signed by our parents, and bring them back.
That afternoon on the school bus I made my mind into a wordless, imageless blank. Almost of its own volition, my right hand crept into the pocket of my dress where it found a small crumpled piece of paper. Just a scrap of paper. I looked in determined fascination at the passing scenery, ignoring the hand that secretly tore the permission slip to shreds in the darkness of my pocket. I shifted the unimportant pieces of paper to my left hand, which moved casually to the open window. I looked calmly around at the chattering children in the bus and ignored the fingers of my left hand as they slowly opened and allowed the scraps of paper to slip away into oblivion.
I was the only one without a signed permission slip. “My mother decided not to sign it,” I told Miss Berry. “She’s a nurse, so she’ll prick my finger herself.” As I sat alone in my corner of the classroom watching my classmates file in, each with a cotton ball between thumb and middle finger, I felt a deep sense of shame. But I willed myself to ignore it and banished the ugly creature that caused it to a dark cavern of my unconscious self. I was a good girl, I told myself as I sighed with relief at successfully escaping the pain of the finger prick.
Such is the morality of youth. Honesty is not very important to vulnerable little girls for whom the most pressing need is to survive with a maximum of need fulfillment and a minimum of personal discomfort. At this, the earliest level of human morality, “good” is anything that protects us from pain and punishment. “Bad” is anything that hurts or gets us into trouble.
At six, I knew it was wrong to lie to my teacher and not to tell my mother about the blood test, but my need to avoid pain had top priority. Because this need was so strong, I ignored the truth I knew at a deeper level: I had broken some rules that were important to the adults in my life. I had lied. I had been bad.
And so, like all children, I learned to play the game of hide and seek. Hiding my secret badness in a cave of denial became a way of life for many years. I believed that because I conformed in public and gained the approval of the people in power, I must really be good, regardless of how I thought or acted in private. In other words, I didn’t know how to separate the game I played and the persona I wore from the way I thought and acted when unobserved by others, which, of course, was not always perfectly “good.”
There’s nothing abnormal about this in children. In fact, research into moral development indicates that we all pass through this stage as we wander through the murky forest of ignorance toward the light of moral maturity. Only we must be careful not to stay there overlong. Years of hiding and feeding the ugly creatures we created as children can transform them into walking, talking conscienceless monsters; and nothing on this earth is more dangerous or devastating to humanity’s hopes for peace and justice than the fearful, dishonest, single-minded, self-interested shadow of a mask-wearing adult in a position of power.
We have to stop our finger-pointing. The real enemies are not out there: they’re right here inside of you and me. They’re our shadows. And we won’t be free to live authentic, fulfilling lives until we acknowledge them, for only then will they give us access to the hidden treasures they guard. Fortunately, we can transform our shadows into guides with a four-step practice of observing, acknowledging, making amends, and forgiving:
(1) Pay careful attention to your shadow when it shows up in uncomfortable emotions, thoughts, and behaviors you try to ignore
(2) Acknowledge the truth of them to yourself and others
(3) Make amends if you hurt someone
(4) Forgive yourself for being human.
Welcome to the human race.
Image credits: cult cave, Shadowman, commons.wikipedia.org
Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at Kobo, Barnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Watch for her new book, The Soul’s Twins, forthcoming from Schiffer Red Feather Mind Body Spirit on Nov. 17, 2020. For more information, subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.