History tells us when those who yield to their shadow selves choose leaders of their ilk, calamity, often war, follows.
Carl Jung labeled the dark side of self as “the shadow.” His psychiatric research into personality found people to have inner shadows associated with feelings of guilt, fear, hate, anger, selfishness, etc.
Upon looking deeply into himself, C.S. Lewis said “And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was legion.”
Parker Palmer, founder of the Center for Courage and Renewal, teaches we must know and confront our inner shadows to become whole or “authentic”.
“In critical areas like politics, religion, business, and the mass media, too many leaders refuse to name and claim their shadows,” says Palmer. “With shadows that go unexamined and unchecked, they use power heedlessly in ways that harm countless people and undermine public trust in our major institutions.”
He was echoing Plato who said, “In all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature.” Plato cautioned that tyrants begin as “protectors,” then “the lion and serpent element in them disproportionately grows and gains strength.”
How many times have we seen leaders pretend to virtuousness only to see their dark sides rear up to bring them down?
Then, there are those who manipulate our dark sides to gain power. They play to our fears, anger, and selfishness. As they rise to power, they breed more followers of like mind. “A leader,” Palmer explained, “is someone with the power to project either shadow or light” and who “shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell.”
In today’s world, more and more leaders are rising up who play to the shadow selves of their people – Putin in Russia, Netanyahu in Israel, Erdogan in Turkey, Sisi in Egypt, Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the U.S., and more on the rise in Europe.
We can see it at the state and local levels, too, where the politics of division and self-interest overwhelm the good of the whole.
When we allow our shadow selves to guide us, we open the doors of government to the “looters” and “moochers” that Ayn Rand wrote about. We set up the pathways to tyranny that Plato warned us about.
“Alexis de Tocqueville, put it eloquently,” said Ronald Reagan, quoting the historian in his famous “evil empire” speech — “Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and the genius of America. America is good. And if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
Our challenge, then, is to dwell more in the light than in the shadow and become like the teachers whose inner light stimulates young people to grow and flourish and the pastors whose guiding light does the same for their congregations.