In reading today’s Epistle lesson from the first letter of John, I am reminded of my experience this week in the Spiritual Directors International Conference. “And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything,” says John.
In workshops and in the keynote speeches of this year’s Spiritual Directors International conference, the issue of narcissism and the projection of the shadow frequently came up. We have become a culture of narcissists. And this means that we are deeply invested in projecting our shadow natures onto other people.
Projecting the shadow — seeing in others the sins and shortcomings that are part of our own natures — is a natural tendency at the best of times, one that we have to conscientiously work to correct. This work is never over, for the better we become at seeing where we fall short, the more clever we also become in hiding and in casting blame on others.
In times when the prevailing climate favores a “me and mine first” outlook, our tendency to project the shadow grows huge. It’s vital then for us to really suffer our failures and shortcomings, to suffer our shame in profound self-knowledge. This work leads to humility. And humility is the antidote to narcissism.
One of the most important tasks of the spiritual director, conference speakers and workshop leaders pointed out, is in helping people to reel in their shadows. And, of course, the Spiritual Director needs to embrace their own shadow first — removing the plank from their own eye in order to see the splinter in the others’.
So I have been reeling in projections. There are so many things I have done that are shameful to me. There are so many times I failed to act when I should have. My choices have often been less than stellar, sometimes very deeply hurtful — of others or of myself.
The examination of your life, and, hopefully, sharing your shortcomings with another trusted person can do wonders for the soul. In humility we accept our place in the ranks of other flawed humans. This allows us a larger and more flexible compassion.
God already knows our shadow, and waits for us to look at it boldly so that we can know both who we are and that we are forgiven. This is also humility, this knowing that we are profoundly loved, in our entirety. It is not when we are the best or the most righteous but simply when we are that we are embraced by God. And so my shameful memories find their way into the warm embrace of the one who is nearer to me than my own heartbeat, more sustaining than my breath, and I turn to the world, ready to love. May this be your experience as well. We need your compassionate heart.