Facing the Collective Shadow

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A person's shadow is cast against a stone and brick wall.

On Friday, some friends and I watched the most interesting and moving digital theater piece I’ve ever seen. It’s called Animal Wisdom, and its creator Heather Christian builds an immersive, elaborate world of rituals and remembrances for her loved ones who have passed.

Animal Wisdom is part seance, part exorcism, part celebration — and for two hours it vacillates between beautiful, melodic narrative and dark, confusing chaos. It’s messy and weird and sometimes a little too much to sit with.

Sounds like grief, right? The kind of grief we don’t really let ourselves feel on a daily basis. The kind of grief that even when it’s “justified” we often stuff deep down within ourselves.

If Animal Wisdom’s rituals for honoring the dead are at the family level, this weekend we’re all honoring the dead as a collective.

It’s Memorial Day. I looked at a statistics site and by my math it looks like we have 1,304,684 service people to mourn — and that only accounts for the losses on our side.

It’s also the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre, where historians estimate hundreds of lives lost and thousands more devastated by a white mob intent on terrorizing their black neighbors.

A shadow drapes across the day: how do we honor our dead when the death count keeps rising?

A poet named Robert Bly speaks of the “long bag we drag behind us” in reference to our shadow selves, a concept from Jungian theory. As kids we learn to feel shame and fear and pain by watching how the adults around us react. We take the parts of ourselves that trigger those feelings and stick them in a bag, out of sight. As we mature, we continue this process, observing the reaction of the culture at large. Our bags get heavier and heavier.

Individuals have these bags, but so do communities and countries. America's collective bag is full — but we don’t want to look inside. We don’t want to believe what’s in there is us. But here’s a truth we have to face: We’re a danger to ourselves and others when we don’t face our shit.

The stuff in our bag is stunted, reactive, misshapen. It hasn’t been given the chance to grow, to learn, to integrate — instead it punches out or sneaks into our biases. By avoiding the discomfort of facing these facets of ourselves, we deny ourselves the chance to understand and heal them before they do more harm.

So how do we collectively unzip the bag we carry? I don’t have the answer, but I’m certain of this: we start with ourselves, and we do it in honor of the people we've lost.