Why systems change requires shadow work

From cancel culture, to rape culture, systemic racism and everything in between — acknowledging our own and society’s skeletons is essential to deep, and long-lasting change. AKA stories are made to be rewritten.

One of the best news stories of 2020 has been President-Elect, Joe Biden, filling economic posts with experts on systemic racism. Planting these seeds of top-down systems change is the result of a long year of facing our collective shadows. I mean “shadows” in the Jungian psychology sense of making conscious what previously was not in our conscious awareness. Think of it as facing our skeletons in the closet. How could there be any meaningful progress without doing so? If society is always hiding some dirty secret?

Art by @victoriatoppingart

In this story, we see how transformative the practice of shadow work can be. A national leadership searches for answers to centuries of unacknowledged material — and it results in a systemic approach to a longstanding problem. What would happen if systems change work embraced shadow practice as a matter of course — as a starting point for deep and long-lasting change?

From systemic racism, to deeply entrenched misogyny, I believe shadow work can undo much of the othering going on in our societies. It can heal divisions, and help us create a more conscious and humble civilisation rooted in empathy, kindness, and compassion.

First things first. What is the shadow and why does it matter? Carl Jung famously said, ‘Every light casts a shadow.’ Or, in other words, every positive or idealised story in the psyche has its corresponding negative or dark flipside.

There are many types of lights, or positive narratives. From personal ones like ‘I’m a good person’. To collective ones like, ‘I am American and the defender of democracy and freedom.’ If we follow Jung’s reasoning, these positive narratives breed personal and collective shadows.

Hollywood projects one image of America as a saviour and guardian of what’s good and just — whereas the reality is rather more bloody, and grim, both at home and abroad. The Black Lives Matter movement finally thrust this incongruence into the mainstream’s awareness.

Art by @luna.lingua

This unacknowledged unconscious material also means that, as people and collectives, we are not whole. How can the body of humanity flourish when it is fragmented? When white is against black, when man is against woman, when right against left? I argue that for us to move forward and truly create root and branch change, we each of us have to do the dirty work, and acknowledge all the things denied about ourselves and our cultures. So, allow me to be the first to hold up my hand and own my culture’s stuff.

As a Greek-American passionate about co-creating a new civilisation in Western civilisation’s ground zero, Greece, I couldn’t legitimately advocate for this without looking at my cultures’ roles in our collective’s shadow. Any attempt to build something new on top of unconscious dark material would be like building on quicksand.

Yes, ancient Greece gave us democracy and any number of social and intellectual institutions we keep on a pedestal — but it also encoded rape culture and the disadvantaging of women as society’s modus operandi. America, on the other hand, has glorified war, plunder and the pursuit of ‘life, liberty, and happiness’ at any cost.

In fact the full lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner, the US’ national anthem, is a drearily sentimental account of battle. War is encoded into the founding DNA of the country. Is it any surprise the USA has been responsible for 12 million deaths since World War II?

But hang on, Greece as the cradle of misogyny and rape culture? Indeed. Women in ancient Greece fared about as well as women under the Taleban regime, with no rights, no social standing, no access to education, let along being able to vote. What’s more, a cursory look at the Greek mythology reveals a disconcerting amount of rape, airbrushed as ‘abduction’. Even the Odyssey encodes the silencing of women as a social norm.

‘Ancestors’ by @antigonaart

From the LA Times article, ‘Tracing the roots of misogyny to ancient Greece and Rome’:

‘Mary Beard opens her book “Women & Power” with a scene out of the Odyssey. Penelope leaves her room to approach the assorted suitors who more or less occupy her mansion, waiting for her to give up on long-lost Odysseus and marry one of them. When she requests they stop singing such songs, she is met with resistance from the youngest male there: Her adolescent son, Telemachus, chastises her. Return to your room, he tells her; public speaking is for men.

“I read the Odyssey for 20 or 30 years before I noticed the line,” Beard says. “At a certain moment you just say, blimey, that is a founding moment in Western civilisation! And I’d read it however many times and not recognised it. And here we are in the first book of the poem and we have this moment: saying speech is male, and silencing a woman. The culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment: politics in its widest sense. Speech and power are inextricably linked, and male silencing of women is present at the very core of our cultural DNA.’

From the witch trials, to the persecution and de-platforming of dissenting female voices, there is no shortage of women who bear the brunt of this unacknowledged misogyny. But this isn’t just about women.

Whenever a group, society, or nation strongly believe in their moral righteousness, superiority or entitlement, you bet your bottom dollar the collective shadow is present. Collective projections establish an ‘us-them’ split. They generate suspicion and hatred of the other group. It’s how discrete populations are vilified into enemies or scapegoats.

Meanwhile in Athens (by MV)

And when this destructive and emotionally volatile shadow material is projected onto a group or nation, wars happen. Jung called these forms of the collective unconscious ‘psychic epidemics.’ What is cancel culture if not a psychic epidemic? As is the rise of extreme ideologies around the world and America, the self-proclaimed defender of freedom, taking a disturbing far right turn.

It’s all well and good to talk — but what’s to be done? Let’s take it back to Carl. In ‘The Jung Reader,’ author David Tacey defines the shadow as a moral problem that has to be faced. In other words, let’s start telling the stories that matter — and re-align our distorted narratives with reality:

“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”, writes Tacey. “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, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance”.

Nuff said

But in 2020 that resistance was blown out of the water. With all our distractions stripped away, with half the world on lockdown, and the majority of humanity sharing an experience for the first time ever, we had no choice but to be present to the onslaught of injustice and corruption. To weigh the good against the bad. To compare one country’s response with another’s. And ask why.

And asking why as individuals can be more powerful than you think. Jung said, “The psychology of the individual is reflected in the psychology of the nation. What the nation does is done also by each individual, and so long as the individual continues to do it, the nation will do likewise. Only a change in the attitude of the individual can initiate a change in the psychology of the nation.” In other words, systems change begins with personal change.

So, here’s a fun little exercise to explore our personal shadow. Make a list of all the things that really irritate you or repel you about someone (a person or a group). Made your list? Great. Now, put your name at the top — and say hello to your shadow.

Admittedly, it’s not easy facing our Dorian Grey portrait. But as Jung once said, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” If the Black Lives Matter protests tell us anything, we must own up and face our darkness lest it erupts onto the scene.

We must rewrite our national mythologies as stories of harmonious co-existence, where flawed individuals work together to become masters of their own fate. For in this more conscious civilisation, there is no one without sin, and no one to cast that first stone.

Time to make friends with our shadows

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed, please share, ‘clap’ or leave a comment. Note, this editorial originally appeared in The Alternative.

Mary V is currently rebooting Greece: www.oipolloi.io | She’s on a mission to make solidarity sexy: terraform.world | She advocates user-centred policy design