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“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”

-Carl Jung

Culture’s Shadow

Each of us possesses a shadow. It is that slinking, sprawling, dark reflection of which we are seldom aware. The shadow’s darkness holds many things, for it is deep. What it holds psychologically is precisely that which we cannot see, or are unwilling to look at. 

The shadow is the part of our psyche that contains the unrealized aspects of ourselves. The themes of the shadow are present in our fantasies, dreams, and projections on others, and they often carry messages we’re shy to hear. The task the shadow asks of us is its integration. It dares us to witness its existence, explore its origins, and harmonize it responsibly into our conscious awareness.

Carl Jung emphasized the crucial task of integrating one’s shadow for a person’s self-development. He understood it as a moral task that takes considerable effort. It requires attention be paid to the liminal spaces of the psyche. Confronting the shadow requires looking at what aggravates or antagonizes you in others and asking, “what does this say about me?”

One of the challenges of the shadow is that it’s evasive; it hugs walls and bends corners. Yet it is not trying to be ignored. In fact, it invites curious pursuit. When it taps our shoulder and skitters off before we turn, we are wise to chase it down. This invitation is ignored at our peril. If we don’t integrate the shadow, it manifests elsewhere in ways we can’t control. We see this in the bully who beats up classmates because he feels neglected at home. Or the preacher who ballyhoos abstinence on the pulpit while also addicted to pornography.

As each individual has a shadow, culture has a shadow of its own, for culture is its own kind of entity undergoing its own version of life. Culture is something we brought to life to order the space between self-awareness and enveloping nature, and now culture envelops us as well. It is a layer we carry at all times like clothing. Therefore, culture’s shadow is ours to integrate. No one will do it for us. Through the psychological lens, it’s obvious that the sickness that is gripping our culture is the evocation of a shadow that’s begging to be looked at.1


1 A deeper exploration of my views on the nature of culture and what I call culture’s sickness can be found in my essay, “The Proper Task of Life: How Art Can Save the Soul of Humankind”.

Afraid and Comfortable

Because we aren’t midwifing its shadow integration, culture is experiencing cognitive dissonance. Culture’s shadow is massive—grown over millennia of repression, suppression, and oppression of every imaginable kind. Like the covetous dragon of myth, culture’s shadow will stuff its cave to the point of unlivability. It is in the nature of the shadow to grow larger the longer it’s avoided or ignored.   

Culture’s unexamined shadow should be seen as a principal problem of our time. This is because culture’s sickness is in large part sourced from our collective neglect of the shadow. Like stones swept under a rug, the disregarded elements of our culture don’t disappear when out of sight. They are merely redistributed; we can still stub our toes on them, or trip and break our necks. Depriving them of light doesn’t erase them; it only broadens the darkness. Has it ever been wise to put that which is most dangerous somewhere one can’t keep an eye on it? To place the crouching lion back behind the tall grass? 

Left unexamined, shadow elements tend to work their way into conscious awareness; the forms they take on to do so are many. At times they erupt in spectacular fashion, as shootings, riots, and wars. Or they manifest as disease and depression held in the body and psyche. Today, they flourish in the projection contests fought throughout the culture wars, where the Other is not seen as brother or sister, but as either tentative ally or dangerous avatar of evil.

Cognitive dissonance arises where there’s an incompatibility between what is experienced and what is believed to be true. This is what’s happening with us and the cultural shadow. Culture, being a kind of massive structure, represents stability by nature . At the same time we have this in mind, we watch culture splitting apart. That is a dissonance. There are many more. Across one plane, we’re more networked together than our great-grandparents could have even conceived of; across another, we’re more alone than ever. We crave from our core for a return to nature while we go through the day puppeteered by our technology. We’re assured well-being is just a few rungs up the status ladder as we chase a gilded ball down a bottomless pit. These are a handful of the dissonances we fumble with daily like an overstuffed sack we’re forced to carry on our heads.

Among it all, there seems to be one dissonance that is particularly hammered like a tetanus-tipped nail down our understanding’s midline. It’s the assiduously insinuated dominant narrative of our culture, which is this: “The world is impossibly dangerous, and everything’s under control”. Paying attention, you will see this narrative daily in news media broadcasts and political pronouncements. It is a pacifying contradiction, and it teaches us to be too afraid to feel at peace and too comfortable to bother striving. 

We are taught there’s always danger lurking in the background—there’s hostile nations, turbulent nature, terrorist monsters, the duplicitous Other. In this way we move through the world in a constant state of slight elevation, as if a pennyweight were placed on the amygdala. Concurrently, we are assured that everything is going as it should, that all the dangers we face are under our control. This is told to us, and it’s supported by the aspects of our culture that are stable—the lights come on when we flip the switch; there’s food in the stores when we shop; the package is delivered the week that it is ordered—which provides an overlay of comfort and safety. 

However there’s no denying that this narrative contains a contradiction, an inner dissonance. To preempt this realization, our culture offers a synthesized message purported to square “Be afraid” with “It’s under control”. That message might be put this way: “Everything is under control within the bounds of our system. Outside of those bounds, the world is impossibly dangerous. Therefore, it is necessary to remain within our system at all times, in all ways, or else you will go mad, ruin your family, fall ill, and die.” 

In this way, culture positions an artificial sun at permanent high noon. If we stay in place, culture promises, we will be safe and feel warm. The culture informs us that “Everything is under control. The system is functioning as it should. You should not examine the nature of the darkness. It would do you no good if you tried. You must focus on accumulating goods. You must focus on accumulating wealth. You must not look too deeply or you’ll find something scary. You must not stray too far or you’ll lose your great comforts.” It’s important to recognize that this message is not from a malicious decree authored by the rulers of the planet, but that is of a self-replicating sickness imprinted in the genes of culture itself.

The culture’s false sun enforces the impulse that what is in the shadow is shameful, or scary, or deadly, or wrong. This is enforced in our social climate where we’re taught to appear outwardly virtuous and contend with our demons in silence. It is enforced by consumer culture, where the dis-ease we feel is acknowledged only obliquely, and only insofar as we can be sold a surface-skimming fix. Under the false sun, we are taught never to examine, since the current cultural structure depends on our careless passivity. So long as we’re ostensibly comfortable, we’re convinced, there’s no need to bring about change. In the same way that our medicine model relies on abating symptoms more than curing or preventing disease, our larger cultural system is not invested in our healing, only in the relentless temporary distraction from our pain.

Like the singular cartoon stormcloud, culture’s false sun hangs ever over our heads, and therefore the shadow is barely visible. When the beaming sun sits at ceaseless high noon, we feel safe enough to brush off a tap on our shoulder. Still, the shadow is ever-present. Even at high noon one can’t help glancing wisps of it. When noticed, even wisps of shadow mesmerize; they enrapture our attention. How could they not? We are curious creatures. We seek, and we see. We know when something’s there, even if we can’t quite make its form. That’s important, because noticing is the first step toward awareness, and awareness is the precedent for integration.

The Archaic Revival

“Among the so-called neurotics of our day there are a good many who in other ages would not have been neurotic—that is, divided against themselves. If they had lived in a period or a milieu in which man was still linked by myth with the world of the ancestors, and thus with nature truly experienced and not merely seen from outside, they would have been spared this division within themselves.”

-Carl Jung

In order to do the deeper work that is being pleaded of us by our predicament, we need to relinquish high noon. This is no small task nor ask. The deepest aspects of us are driven toward feelings of safety. To stand against that instinct and march toward the darkness is to upend the animal impulse. That’s because surviving in ruthless wild nature is ingrained in us—physiologically—in our epigenetic memory and—psychologically—in the collective unconscious.

Homo sapiens are theorized to have emerged around 300,000 years in the past. It is believed that agriculture, permanent human dwellings, and the glimmerings of society have been part of the human experience for perhaps 10,000 years. What this indicates is that for roughly 97% of human existence, we lived, wept, strived, grovelled, grew, and adapted in untrammeled nature and all of her consequences. This constitutes the overwhelming bulk of our context.

One can imagine the importance of high noon in the wild state of archaic times. The peak, full sun provides a respite from eyeing every darkness for predators and a window to see the full expanse of available prey. It means a break from debilitating rainstorms, dense fog, hail, and snow. It allows the vulnerable children to be attended in full view. One can envision the psychological safety that a sun which casts no shadows represents—the quest for it is, in large part, why we began the project of culture in the first place.

In the natural state, high noon lasted a moment, and gradually turned to high night. At night the snakes and spiders were unseen, and still they were as deadly. The cats could see where we could not, and still they lurked. Thank God we went on to discover fire. Here was our first false sun. 

Fire provided us warmth, a dancing source of light, and meditative preoccupation. It offered an island of protection in a sea of pitch dark danger. And it cast extravagant shadows, the darkest, most haunting, beautiful, and poignant ones of all—they unfolded and transformed; they wouldn’t stay still. Sitting around the warmth, safety, and gnosis of the fire, we were able to examine the cascade of shadow forms pouring from our clan. Night upon night, surrounded by those we loved most, and those with whom we were in conflict, we had no choice but to examine one another and ourselves. The false sun of fire granted a ritualized examination of the shadow dimension that we could go through every night. 

The false sun of our age, by contrast, gifts us anhedonia, eye strain, and waning attention spans. We don’t examine our shadows because the dance of the fire of screens obfuscates; it does not reveal truth like real fire. Still, we achieved our quest of keeping safe from the predators of nature through the night. We can rest with 100% certainty that a lion won’t attack our families while we sleep. That’s beautiful and buoyant, and it’s important—because now we can sleep soundly, and we can dream. There is much work to be done with the shadow in dream. However, we must consider this triumph of culture. We built a fortress; we built a wall that a lion can’t possibly intrude on. Yet, look at how few lions there are in the world. Look how few tigers exist. Look at how few elephants there are that may otherwise trample. Look how few rhinoceros there are, how few hippos there are, that might otherwise gore, gnash, chomp, and thrash. We are safe from the darkness of night. Is this what we would call a triumph?

There is no going backwards for us, nor should there be. But in our time there is a crying out from a deeply human place for what Terence McKenna termed an “archaic revival”—that is, a looking to the past for the methods of pre-culture that can rescue humanity from its gilded dungeon. It is time to look to nature for the lessons it contains on harmony and balance, and to remember that we are nature, and it’s time to reconnect with the pre-religious sacredness that nature represents. By taking up the task of the archaic revival, we can learn how to integrate culture’s shadow and return the cast-off pieces into proper alignment within the sacred whole. The subtle technology of sitting around a fire with one’s clan is one archaic method we can learn from. Another archaic technology that is perhaps more ancient even than taming fire provides another hand-hold for integrating culture’s shadow: the technology of story.

Story As Examination

In story, characters and circumstances can bring to life fantasies, themes, passing thoughts, aberrations, and manifold denizens of the shadow. In this way, story is a technology through which aspects of the shadow can be offloaded, so that they can be examined. Story and fire are harmonious technologies. With fire, the archaic day became extended in a meaningful way. Story and song were creations that could meaningfully fill time and space where hunting and gathering was precluded. By spending nights around the fire examining shadows and sharing, our ancestors learned to convey through story how to integrate the shadow. The particularly helpful elements became codified through archetype and myth, which gave us the ability to share transcendent truths across time. 

Story, and indeed all art, needs to contain an element of shadow. If completely mundane, completely safe and scrubbed clean, it loses touch with the shadow; if too world-loathing, the art becomes possessed by it. The art of story is particularly useful for shadow work, as it provides us with the license and prompting to try on different archetypes or character affects. As in dream, we are able to experience a diversity of conditions that we may otherwise never encounter, and thus prepare for the capriciousness of life. Film, as an instantiation of story, is singularly good in the way of trying types on. Quite appropriately, the technology of film began as literal projections on a screen. It also allowed us to inhabit characters and themes with an intimacy and force seldom touched on before, in all the layered richness of story.

Among modern film, two genres stand above as uniquely efficacious for working with culture’s shadow: horror and comedy. Upon examination we can see why. Horror allows us to touch on dark things within a safe container and emerge, at least physically, totally unscathed. Horror also reveals that there’s an unquenchable killer that is within each of our fields of potential. That is an essential understanding to contend with. Comedy has an inherent darkness as well, a baked-in shadow. And we laugh at it, and that’s the right response. Comedy is able to touch on dark spaces and shine light through humor into that which is most dark. In this way it is able to transcend the darkness and sorrow of the fact of its subject—the absurdity of life. 

As with culture’s shadow, we are asked by comedy and horror to relinquish comfort—because they require our discomfort to be effective—and fear—because they ask us to visit the back of the cave, not just the entrance where the sunlight glimmers. The tacit acknowledgement of these genres is the real risk of going too far into shadow to be rescued. Great works of comedy and horror walk that line as they explore and define where the line lies for culture. Through connecting with these works, we can determine where in ourselves lies the line that Solzhenitsyn speaks of running through every human heart.

So much of the story-making nowadays is devoid of substance in a way that it only distracts from the shadow. Much of the story-making that does touch on the shadow is possessed by it. There is no harmony since story is not held in its sacred place. We’re reflected in the stories we tell, so when we don’t see the sacred in our stories, we don’t see the sacred in ourselves. Even sacred story has its pitfalls; it is a conveyance for deep understanding, but it has to be embodied or it risks becoming dogma. What we need are stories that are alive, stories that move the sun—to the degree that we can start seeing funhouse incarnations of our shadows—and stories that invite us, in their depth, to be inhabited. Through holding up and trying on great stories, the process of recognizing and integrating the shadow takes considerably less effort.

Story, and all art, needs to be granted free license to examine the shadow. Otherwise, we don’t easily learn how to face those shadow aspects in ourselves. When we push them down and distract ourselves from them we become sick, with an illness that’s highly contagious. That’s the reason our culture’s popular storymaking tends either toward nihilism or frivolity—destruction or distraction… once again, fear or comfort. Each of these narratives has its own perils, but followed to the end they land in the same place: in a culture that’s engulfed by its shadow.

The Danger Is Being Engulfed

The risk is real. If we keep ignoring culture’s shadow, it will consume us. Our answer to the horrors of the world has been to install a bright light and keep them out of view. This can no longer serve us. We can’t remain overly comfortable (while agonizing under the surface), and we can’t resign to being world-weary. We also must dispel the illusion that our culture can build its way out of its shadow through novel technologies. The dangers we face are many, and they must be assessed and addressed with proper attention and care. If improperly directed, the shadow can be projected viciously on the Other, providing a convenient but misplaced justification for the fear that exists within oneself. If indelicately handled, working with the shadow can cause shadow possession, whereby the unconscious content subordinates the conscious. Both of these dangers are manifesting widely in our culture.

If we don’t address the shadow we destroy ourselves. Our capacity for destruction is world-breaking. And that’s a significant part of our fear—the anticipation that our self-made destruction is imminent. It’s why nihilism holds so much cultural sway; our imminent destruction seems real, and to an extent, it is. 

We sit on a rope that’s stretched across the chasm which cleaves salvation and annihilation, and we have to pick a direction and start walking. If we dither in the middle too long, the rope breaks, or we get so tired that we can’t keep holding on. Indecision is only one problem. The pull of resigning to self destruction is strong. Our culture loves the nihilistic character who walks in that direction (for instance: the Joker, Rick Sanchez, Rustin Cohle, etc.) because he speaks a truth that needs to be said. But, importantly, he doesn’t tell the whole story, and in fact he betrays the real truth of the story by grave omission. 

Harmony must be found. It must be realized. We can be confident that we’re capable of finding it, because it’s built into the world. High noon comes every day. We get to stand directly under the sun, and feel safe, feel warm, feel connected to the earth and the sky. Yet high noon slips away, in less than a minute, less than a second, and rather than embracing this fact of nature, we try to overcome it. 

The paradox of our predicament is that the achievement of true harmony can only be found by reaching deeper into darkness. We need to reach carefully, since our history holds many cases of tragic overreaches in terrible directions, but if we do, we will emerge with harmony in our hands. 

As we sit on the tightrope, side-eyeing annihilation, the prospect of getting up and walking seems too daunting to even consider. However, we have no choice. Everything is at stake. We must pick ourselves up and put one foot in front of the other. The other options are not ours to take. Here is the truth that no one will come right out and tell us: If we walk in the direction of salvation, we will be saved. 

Face Everything and Become Whole 

Things are deposited in the shadow when the ego isn’t strong enough to effectively integrate them, often in childhood. Integration is considered work for the second half of life for this reason. Culture is now emerging into its “second half of life”; the expansiveness of the youth phase is over, and it’s time for consolidation. 

In pursuit of control and safety, we installed a false sun that now blocks our ability to accurately assess what’s going on. Therefore we feel lost and confused, because we know there’s something going on, we know there’s something not right, yet we can’t exactly see what it is. In order to become whole, we must relinquish high noon by relinquishing the fear and the comfort of the story that we cling to, so that we can accept the horror and comedy of the situation we face. Through the act of relinquishing, we will prove to ourselves and to the world that we have the courage to face what we find there.

Our actions create culture; or rather, they become what culture becomes as we do them. If we’re ill moving through the world, we spread sickness. This is the state we’re in, because culture is out of balance. We’ve overreached in our quest for safety from the lion. Now we are realizing that there is a greater safety than material comfort, and that’s the collective psychological safety that allows for the embodiment of being safe. When we are actually safe, we can be truly vulnerable—not hardened in public while hurting inside—and truly curious—not curious in silence while afraid to raise a hand and ask a question. It’s our duty to create a culture where we can look any person in the eye, feel her warmth, hear her breath, sense her beating heart, and listen, with humility and grace, to how she’s hurting. That is how we heal. That’s how we attain harmony. If we can do the same things for ourselves, that’s how we achieve wholeness.

Sitting around a fire, you can turn your head and see the shadows that are cast in each direction. You can see who’s sitting right opposite from you, in perceived opposition. Maybe he’s sitting far back, so his whole being’s engulfed in shadow, and so that’s the only thing you see. Perhaps you want to cast him out, because the fire represents your safety, and he represents the unknown. But if instead you find the courage to ask that shrouded opposing figure, in all of the danger and promise his darkness represents, to come closer, to sit beside you, you will learn to speak a story that is true: “Stranger, let me see you. Come closer. Let me know who you are. Let me see what shapes your shadow takes. Let me know where you’ve been and what you’re afraid of. Tell me what you’ve learned. Let me see your eyes, and look into them deeply. Let me speak to you and listen from my heart. Let me know you. Stranger, let me know you—because then I’ll know that we’re the same.”

The task of integration is imperative, but the situation is not dire, because as Lao Tzu said, “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished”. So we need not hurry through the process of integrating culture’s shadow. But we must begin. We just have to do it right, and we are fully capable. It’s our duty and our honor and our burden to pay attention and not shut out the shadow, but instead invite it in and get to know it, and speak to it and love it. We can hate it too. But we have to love it.

Keith Gilmore

Keith Gilmore

Keith Gilmore is a writer, speaker, and coach. He is co-founder of Texture Life Coaching, a life coaching platform serving clients in Portland, OR and throughout the country, and The Integrated Man, a program for reconnecting men with their purpose.

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