Irish-American Witchcraft: The Value of Our Shadow

Irish-American Witchcraft: The Value of Our Shadow February 2, 2016
Full Moon / M. Daimler
Full Moon / M. Daimler

I recently read a wonderful blog by Asa West called Priestessing Depression and it started a discussion among a group of my friends on social media. The question was raised by a couple people of why, exactly, we would want to give attention to negative emotions and that ended up inspiring this blog.

People who know me know that I often express concern about the imbalance I perceive in modern spiritual paths that put all their focus and emphasis on the positive and the light, to the exclusion or vilification of the negative and the dark. I’ve written a bit on my own personal blog about the value of the darkness and of my own path as a witch who doesn’t shy away from darker things. This has spurred several jokes, very tongue in cheek, including the parting blessing of ‘darkness and courage’ instead of love and light. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying that the light is bad, or that darkness is better, but rather that any extreme can be unhealthy particularly when the other end of the spectrum is turned into an irredeemable negative. There is always both negative and positive in all parts of the spectrum of witchcraft. I’m all in favor of people choosing what works for them, light, gray, or dark. What worries me is people who try to totally ignore the other end of the spectrum in favor of their own.

In many forms of witchcraft there is an acknowledgment of what is called the Shadow or the shadow self, that part of ourself that holds the things we fear and the aspects of ourself that we have rejected. Our anger, our jealousy, our bitterness, our misery, our terror, our insecurities, these are all the bones of our Shadow. Our Shadow is, in short, everything that most of us like to pretend we aren’t. We create our Shadow out of the bits of ourself that we are taught are ugly and unacceptable; we build our Shadow piece by piece out of our own pain. It is as much a part of us, and as intrinsically a part of us, as our positive feelings. We are too often taught to reject our Shadow, to disown it – don’t be angry, don’t envy, don’t hate – but we don’t do it in a healthy way. We don’t move through those feelings, embrace them, understand them and let them go, no we simply try to shove them away.

Ritual Fire at Harvest Gathering 2015 / M. Daimler
Ritual Fire at Harvest Gathering 2015 / M. Daimler

In my experience, many pagans seem to think that positive emotions = success and negative emotions = failure in a spiritual sense. I disagree. Both are part of the human experience. You can’t idolize one while demonizing the other or you have created an impossible imbalance, because for the vast majority of us experiencing both types of emotions is a daily inevitability. We will be happy and we will be sad, and when we judge one as success and one as failure then we are adding to our own sadness by telling ourself that feeling it is a failure, when it is simply being human. Everyone is sad sometimes. Everyone is angry. Everyone has moments of envy or jealousy (okay maybe not the Dalai Lama, but almost everyone anyway). Being human isn’t failing at spirituality – if anything I’d say understanding what it means to be human is part of the point. And there is a real risk with this mindset that we are creating an idea that if being sad or depressed is failing spiritually people will be even less likely to seek help when they need it for clinical depression and that really worries me; we as a community should be a support for people who need help, not an additional barrier creating unrealistic expectations of perfect happiness 24/7. Spirituality should make your life better, ultimately, not worse.

Sometimes the healthiest thing for us is to let ourselves acknowledge that we are sad, angry, or jealous. Depression doesn’t go away if we just ignore it hard enough. I actually find it concerning that I see so much emphasis on only appreciating the positive among many modern pagans. Its great to be happy and its great to forgive, but its also alright to be angry when you are hurt, or sad when life is hard. Its even alright to be sad when life isn’t hard. And I think we need to say that more often to each other, that its alright to celebrate the good things but its also alright to express the bad. You aren’t a failure spiritually just because you are jealous or angry, although certainly what you do with those emotions matters – talking about them is healthy, acknowledging them is healthy, but acting them out usually isn’t (although I find people act on negative emotions most often when they are trying not to admit they have them). Although I will say some well placed righteous rage can be a thing of beauty and can move mountains when mountains need moving. From a spiritual perspective, in my opinion, understanding these negative emotions, the things that cause us shame and pain, allows us to be more empathetic and understanding of others because it lets us see the ways that we all share those same feelings at some point in our lives. We are all afraid, we are all angry, we all wish we had something someone else has, we all worry about losing what we do have, we are all sad sometimes, these are normal feelings.

Two Beeches, dark and light / M. Daimler
Two Beeches, dark and light / M. Daimler

I like being happy and joyful and all of that positive emotional stuff but I also understand that feeling sad and angry is human. I worry about the message that we shouldn’t feel those things or that feeling them is somehow bad or wrong, because like repression denial of what we feeling only creates a bigger problem in the long run. How often do I see people being told not to complain because someone, somewhere has it worse? How often do I see people being told not to dwell on the negative but to focus on the positive? Too often, I think. And being told not to express those emotions doesn’t make them go away, it just makes us hide them and feel worse about ourselves for feeling them in the first place. Just because someone else has a harder life doesn’t mean that I may not really be feeling bad myself, and there is value in acknowledging and expressing that. We can’t work through and let go of the negative emotions that otherwise can poison us if we bury those emotions and pretend they aren’t there. Certainly we shouldn’t dwell too obsessively on only the negative, because that’s a rabbit hole of its own, but ignoring our negative emotions doesn’t make them disappear, and ignore our Shadow doesn’t overcome it. Only acknowledging it and accepting it for what it is – admitting that we do have those feelings and that its okay to have them, that it makes us just like everyone else – can free us from it. Repressing our shadow side only empowers it and makes it dangerous to us because it takes control away from us. If we don’t own it, it will most certainly own us.

I believe that there is value in our Shadow because it is often where our most primal feelings are. Our instinct to fight or flight, our primal urges, our deep down gut feelings, live in our Shadow. It is not rational, only emotional, but that is its power. In magic your Shadow can be very powerful indeed if you understand its motivations. In life your Shadow ultimately is the key to your happiness, if you can integrate it and make peace with it. We have to stop trying to shove our Shadow away and instead embrace it and let it be part of us again.

In the end there is nothing to fear within our own darkness if we just turn and face it.

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