Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The Shadow's Form
“No one ever looks out a window and sees a tree.” This bit of wisdom came to me from Donald Davis by way of Jim May. It’s not that trees are invisible. That’s just silly. It’s that “tree” is simply the word we assign to the thing we see. Someone who studies trees looks out the window and sees an oak or a pine or a redwood. Someone looking out the window of their childhood home sees the old swing or the tree fort wherein many summers were spent pretending to be pirates or cowboys. Sometimes, too, the person looking out the window sees the tree as the shade over the burial spot for a beloved family pet or happy afternoons resting against its sturdy trunk while reading a book or talking to friends and family. Sometimes, too, we see the intricate patterns in the bark, the leaves, the giant scar from a long ago lightning strike that could not destroy the great plant. Carpenters may see the tree in board feet, carvers a grain that would be perfect for making a bowl. We don’t see a “tree.” What we see is the sum of our experiences. We see ourselves in the tree when we look out the window. It came up in my Friday intensive session with Jim May and Megan Wells. The storyteller has a story, but the reason for picking that story comes from the storyteller’s own experience. There’s a screen playing out images in the teller’s mind. The audience has screens, too. The goal is to put a screen between the teller and the audience, to create a shared experience, a shared understanding. The goal is to, just for a moment, show everyone the tree as the teller sees it. Plato would tell you that there’s an ideal “Form” of a tree somewhere in the firmament and that the trees we see out the window are nothing but pale reflections of that one, perfect tree. We carry this teleology with us in Western civilization. There’s the world, we believe, and then there’s the world as it ought to be. Every time we look at the world and see something that’s just not right is a disappointment. This fuels Millennialism. See, the religions that are interested in such things tell us that there is the world that is and the world that ought. There are the people that are and the people that ought. We do not live in the world that ought and are not the people who ought. So we’re on the clock. Either we take that single, homogenous Platonic form or the heavens will take it upon themselves to make it happen. But what happens to that wonderful tree in the front yard where squirrels chase and chatter? What happens to that old one in the back with the tire swing? Why do they need to be destroyed and replaced with perfection simply because they don’t live up to a Platonic ideal? What matters more? That the tree is perfect or that it has provided shade and sustenance for hundreds or thousands of creatures great and small throughout its long life. Imagine the stories a tree could tell. Some could tell of the rise and fall of nations. Some could tell of the passage of great migrations of animals. Some could tell of children running around, laughing, and growing up. Some could tell of the encroachment of civilization and the great forests lost to logging and progress. The stories those trees could tell would put the lie to our own pathetic decades strutting about and acting like human industry and endeavor is all that matters. What happens to that tree with the arrival of the new heavens and the new Earth? What happens to its stories? What happens to your stories when that happens? What happens to mine? Don’t we need the struggle and the pain to appreciate the good times, anyway? Isn’t it the imperfections, the variations from the Platonic ideal that make life worth living? I took a workshop on Saturday morning called “Befriending the Jitters.” Not “Overcoming the Jitters” or “Avoiding the Jitters,” but “Befriending.” Andre, the storyteller who developed it, was in the same intensive I was the day before and was able to continue on Jim May’s theme of Carl Jung’s “shadow.” He told us that we weren’t going to unpack all of the reasons why we were afraid to tell stories. Instead, he told us we were going to play to our skills. We were going to tell a story about our jitters. We built a character around our fears. We stood up and told everyone else about that character while using our bodies and words to take the shape of those things that we feared. We acted out our fears, gave them a name and a face and a story. Then we created another character. This character was exactly the opposite of the first. It wasn’t who we felt we were, but who we felt we wanted to be on stage. We acted out that story, too. Neither character was to be given our name or our face. One of the other people in the workshop tried to give the second one her name. I'd given the first mine before scratching it out. It was hard to separate the exercise from reality. But it was necessary. Then, and this is crucial, we wrote a story. In the story we wrote those two characters met, interacted, and learned from each other. The self and the shadow met, interacted, merged. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to have doubts. It’s okay to have imperfections. The awareness of fear and imperfection is what drives us forever onward to bigger and better things, to higher heights. The trick is to work with them, not to cover them up or run from them. When that happens our shadow drives us, makes us do work we don’t want to do in order to go places we’d rather not go. I suppose it’s inevitable that I thought about this in conjunction with my own musings about past experiences going on church retreats. I spent many weekends going to woodland lodges in Wisconsin and trying to rid myself of my shadow, my sin. One year we wrote our sins on sheets of paper and symbolically nailed them to a cross. Another year we wrote them on flower pots and broke them. It was, I suppose, cathartic. But it wasn’t cleansing. The sins I nailed to that cross were probably the exact same ones I wrote on that flower pot. When I drove back down the byways of Wisconsin afterwards I’m sure that my thoughts were more around all the ways I needed to work harder when I got home to be good and cleansed and holy. In the back of my mind I’m sure I was thinking of the inevitable fall off the mountain. Mostly, I think the only thing I ever learned on a church retreat was that simple truth from Razor’s Edge: It’s easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain. I also learned time and again that I did not live up to that Platonic ideal of human form given apotheosis by the weird strain of Christianity to which I’d unfortunately dedicated my life. I could never live up, only learn to grovel and promise to try harder in the future. It was a burden I carried with me and rarely managed to put down for more than a moment or two. My shadow, however, is me. I cannot cut the chain that binds me to my shadow and cast off. The lie of the Christianity I have cast off is that I should and that I should want to. The lie is that I cannot be me until I have sent my shadow away. I cannot take on my preferred form until I've gotten rid of a part of myself. The simple fact is that I shouldn’t cut that chain, anyway. My shadow makes me what I am just as much as the self I’d rather the world see, know, and love. When I got on the road on Sunday afternoon I didn’t feel as though I’d been cleansed. I did, however, feel that I’d taken one halting step towards being whole. This was a feeling I’d never gotten from sermons. It seems to happen all the time when I encounter stories.