When our Vizsla Bartok was about a year old, I took him to the beach to play with some dog friends – Buddy a Dalmatian and Norma a Rottweiler. The three of them leapt in the surf like ponies, play-nipping at each other, darting back and forth through the crashing waves. At one point, a flock of Pelicans dropped into regal formation, surging above the shoreline like an Air Force. Bartok raced after the Pelicans, chasing their shadows against the packed wet sand. He ran so fast, he was soon past the birds. He outran the Pelicans. Bartok ran out of shadow. He stopped, bewildered, cocking his head to one side as if to ask, “Shouldn’t I have someone to chase?”
The memory of his puzzled look inspires me. Because I hope to run past my shadow.
I know the importance of shadow. I often dwell there, knowing shadows provide necessary contrast to help us find light. I am not some perky-assed Pollyanna pushing away darkness.
And sometimes it’s right to simply let go; to move from dark to light; to outrun your shadowy self; and stop chasing something you will never catch.
For example: I want to stop chasing the shadow of making my husband guess what is wrong.
I come home from a hike with the dogs. He sits paralyzed before a sci-fi-alien show, streaming on the flat screen in the living room. He has cooked breakfast in my absence and the kitchen is a holocaust. The stove-top blossoms with a residue of eggs, salt and pepper. The rude toaster mocks me from its place on the counter. It is not on the shelf where it belongs. Dirty dishes in the sink conspire to ruin my morning. Three cabinet doors gape open. “What if we have an earthquake and the Rice Krispies or the olive oil spills out?” I lament as I slam doors and jerk dishes into the dishwasher.
I chase the need to be validated by a clean kitchen. “Yes, a clean kitchen would prove that this 26-year-old marriage is intact and he cares,” I say. At the same time, I berate myself, saying “This is newlywed crap. Of course he cares. Plus, he will clean it up if you ask him….”
So now I do my best to run past my illusive insult added to injury. I breathe, and ask for what I want. Sometimes I get it. Sometimes I don’t. But the power is in the stillness of asking.
So that’s fixed – for today. But then, I want to outrun my need to worry about failure.
I’ve served at this crazy-amazing church for twelve years. If we have a low-attendance Sunday, I empower the emptiness. I allow it to lead me into a land of dire predictions. “Well, we’ve had a good span,” I sigh. “We’ve thrived for the last ten years but that’s over now and it’s my fault. I’m losing my touch. Nothing more to say. The well of creative ideas for the freaking-twenty-minute-serio-comedic-monologue-known-as-a-weekly- sermon has dried up. Completely. I’m done.”
I hunker in that darkness. I chase the shadow of security by planning to fail.
I will never catch my worry-shadow, so I run past it and pause. Beyond the shadow, I believe in a friendly universe. My church is not a gaping hole of adversity in an otherwise blessed cosmos. I affirm, “I always have perfect attendance,” implying that God may actually be capable of orchestrating the right people to hear my unique message on any given Sunday. It seems I can stop running and rest in the idea that all is well, whether I know it or not.
That being said, I still need to outrun the occasional tendency to hate myself.
I remember vocal coaching a dancer in NY in the late eighties. He had a great career – lots of Broadway credits. But now he had to audition with a song and he was scared. He struggled. I could tell his head was suffocating his heart. So I asked him to place his hands over his heart and complete the phrase “I can’t sing this song because….”
“I can’t sing this song because it’s too hard.”
“Okay, what else.”
“I can’t sing this song because Sinatra sings it better.”
“Good, give me some more.”
“I can’t sing this song because I hate myself.”
“Now you’re on to something.”
“I can’t sing my song because I hate myself.”
I don’t often hate myself. But occasionally, for whatever reason, I look at life through the lens of my inner-loser. Usually my self-hatred manifest as doubt, as I question my right to take up space on the stage called planet earth. I chase the shadow of relentless self-improvement through self-flagellation.
Tethered to the shadow of a doubt, I twist and wonder “Why am I weird?” Judgment-exhausted, I sigh, “Why can’t you be like the normal ministers, the ones who spew holy words and part red seas with every utterance? Was Martin Luther King compelled to use the F-word? Does Joel Osteen think farts are funny? Did Deepak Chopra ever illustrate The Law of Attraction through a story about the desire to lick his veterinarian? Do I hide from Truth as I scamper in the profound and ridiculous at the same time?”
It’s helpful to stop running and ask: In this moment can I love myself enough to see if I hate myself?
The acts of looking, asking, seeing and loving help me outrun the shadows of self-hatred and doubt.
I see that self-doubt does not exist as a naturally empowered entity. Just like the rude toaster on the counter, or the empty seats in my church, doubt seduces me only when I empower it. I’m the one pulling the levers of loathing. I’m the Wizard-of-Freaking-Oz, a bald-headed man behind a curtain making noise, blowing smoke, and saying “You should be more like the really good ministers, the ones who don’t struggle, the pure ones, the ones who don’t doubt.”
I see these shadows clearly. I acknowledge the struggle and I see that it belongs too… Then I bless and let go. I stand like Bartok, bewildered at first by the lack of familiar chase. But now, I can bind myself to light by asking “What is my song and how shall I sing it?”
In order to sing, maybe we need to stop running and see that we don’t even have to start running.
We don’t need to chase down approval, success or self-love. These things belong to us because we belong to them. We exist, born into original blessing. The shock of this may throw us off balance for a moment. But maybe in that creaky, craggy moment, we can go deeper.
We see our shadow’s shadow – which is light.
We see that all of life is good- the shadow, the light, the running, and the rest.
We let go still more.
And at this deeper level of infinite letting go, the bald man behind the ego-curtain lets go too. He drops the levers of loathing and places his hand on the levers of love. Love awakens us to the truth of mystical, beautiful existence, lightly perfect in its own shadowy way.
That’s my song – and I’m singing it.