• Daniel Kephart

Be Tougher Than Your Shadows

When I was a child, I'd often go along with my father to visit elderly members of the community. It was often far from thrilling. Spending time with the elderly is very difficult for young children, probably because they simply can't muster the patience to sit through story after story after story.

And one of the most common stories is what I've heard one man call, "the organ recital." My hip doesn't work, my knees are arthritic, and my kidneys are on the fritz. As a kid--since, let's face it, kids don't have much empathy--this is incredibly boring. After all, when a kid speaks with the elderly, they want to hear one thing: War stories.

What most kids (and probably most adults) don't realize is that's just what they're getting. The "organ recital" isn't just moaning and groaning. Well, not totally, anyway. It's a detailed story of the speaker's campaign in a strange and foreign land. Our lives, and our bodies, are largely unfamiliar territory to our psyche. We adventure in and across them; and we often suffer along the way. But other people suffer too. Some suffer in nobler ways than others. So we swap stories about injuries we earned as a kid while BMX biking or climbing trees or defending our honor on the playground. Not because it is interesting--it often isn't--but because it proves our credibility. It lets others know that we can be trusted to suffer alongside them and not crack under the pressure of it all.

The ancient Stoics believed (as will be explored in a forthcoming article) that there was no physical harm we could suffer that would do us lasting damage. Instead, they posited, what made suffering problematic was our opinions regarding it. On an everyday scale, I get annoyed when someone cuts me off in traffic or rushes into the checkout lane at the grocery store before me. I suffer, not because there is any real difference in who goes first, but because I feel affronted. I feel wronged. On a more serious scale, we often grieve excessively because we forget while others are living that they are mortal and therefore subject to death. We love them too little while they live, then grieve them too much when they are gone.

What harms us, then, is not the thing in itself but the shadow it casts over our minds. Author George MacDonald grasped this when he wrote in his novel, Phantastes, "As I stood exhausted amidst the dead, after the first worthy deed of my life, I suddenly looked behind me, and there lay the Shadow, black in the sunshine." MacDonald understood that "worthy deeds", the things that motivate us to get up each morning, always involve battling Shadows.

Yet the idea of the Shadow is precisely this: We are the one casting it. It's why the Dark Side dwells within Luke as well as Vader. It's why Frodo carries the One Ring he is sworn to destroy. It's why Harry Potter has a little bit of Voldemort within him. The greatest obstacle to the accomplishment of worthy deeds is the opposition of the Shadow. Yet it is also our compass. Whatever the Shadow tells you that you fear, that is generally the right direction to try to fix some things.

Which is nice when you think about it. After all, having something to struggle against is much better than being miserable and not knowing why. So, in many ways, the Shadow is a bit of a blessing. Only, it demands that we be tough enough to outlast it in the battle of wills that is our mind.

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