The Devil You Know

As we wrap up our month-long examination of "Perseverance," this Sunday Rev. Peter and Worship Associate Josie Cressler reflect on giving up and giving in. How do we know when it is time to let go, and what do we learn from not getting what we want?

Sermon - "The Devil You Know"

Boy, I felt virtuous last Thursday morning! I got up early and went out after the storm. I cleaned off our cars and, precisely at 7am – I mean, 7 am on a weekday when people are headed to work and walking to the train station is acceptable, right? – I fired up our snow blower and cleaned off our driveway and our sidewalks. Then, I cleaned off the sidewalk not just of our neighbor across the street, but the sidewalk of their neighbors, too, all the way to College Avenue. And I didn’t stop there. After I was done with the sidewalks, I used the snow blower to clear off the driveways of both my neighbors. Now, I’m not bragging – good people don’t brag, right? – but it felt good to be such a good neighbor. Especially since I don’t expect anything in return. My good feelings were tempered – but only a little – by the guilt I felt polluting the air with the smoke and noise from my little machine. But here I was, I realized, giving my neighbors not just clean driveways and sidewalks. I was giving them the gift of time! The time they would have spent shoveling was now freed up for them to use as they pleased. Oh, yes, it felt so good!

We like to feel good about ourselves, don’t we? It feels good to feel good, to do a good deed without the enticement of a reward or because we’re being prodded by some invisible stick. We’re taught at an early age that “virtue is its own reward.” And if you think about it, we reinforce those feel-good feelings within our faith, too. We preach and teach the inherent worth of every person. We entrust our faith development to ourselves and each other, believing we all have what it takes to actualize our spiritual growth. We teach our children stories that highlight the value of being honest and truthful and good. When we think about the connections we have with each other – the interdependent web of which we’re all a part – we tend to think in terms of all the nice people we know, the soft and furry animals we love to cuddle, blue skies, clean air, and sunshine. We feel good so much of the time that it feels like we’ve returned to the theology espoused in the late 19th Century by Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke. After the end of the Civil War, with its apparent abolition of slavery, Clarke promoted a belief in what he termed “the progress of mankind, onward and upward forever.” This theology was embraced by Unitarians for several decades, until the horrors and devastation of World War I popped this particular balloon of optimism. That conflict reminded the ever-hopeful Unitarians that human beings can be pretty abhorrent, and it reminded us that our relentless progress as a species is not something in which we can put much stock.

But as religious liberals, we are “progressives,” after all, aren’t we? We believe in progress, in change, in forward movement toward a better future. We work hard not to be daunted by current realities that belie our optimism. We are, if nothing else, a hopeful people. We believe in Martin’s dream, the view he saw from the mountaintop, the Promised Land that neither he nor Moses ever made it to. While we may acknowledge that progress isn’t linear, that sometimes there is backsliding and there are barriers and roadblocks and detours, we believe that ultimately things will be better farther on up the road. We believe, as the song we heard earlier, that “for every drop of rain that falls, a flower grows, that somewhere in the darkest night a candle glows, that for everyone who goes astray someone will come to show the way.”[1]

I would venture to guess that one of the reasons you come here to church is because we’re such an affirming faith, and that you show up on Sunday mornings because you believe you’ll hear something from the pulpit that will make you feel good, or that will give you some hope, or that might inspire you or help you get through the week ahead. If that’s the case, I’m afraid I might disappoint you today. Because today I want to talk about the stuff we don’t often talk about, or even acknowledge exists. I want to talk about the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from ourselves and, for sure, keep hidden from others. Because for every metaphorical angel we have sitting on one shoulder, we’ve got a devil sitting on the other. We – all of us – are made up not just of light, and hope, and love, but of darkness, despair, and fury, too. We aren’t just the admirable and virtuous young boy who didn’t cheat at the Emperor’s challenge. We’re all the kids who cheated. And we’re the Emperor who devised this devious plan, who boiled the seeds, who tricked those young children, too.[2]

You may not realize it, but today is Palm Sunday in the Christian faith. Palm Sunday commemorates the day that Jesus rode into Jerusalem a hero. Jubilant crowds lined the road into the gated city, praising him as their king and their savior, laying palm fronds in his path as a sign of respect and devotion. It was by all accounts a joyous, raucous event. A real celebration. But today I don’t want to focus on the Palm Sunday crowd. I want to focus on the Good Friday crowd. The rabble that openly despised and degraded Jesus as he carried his cross through those same city streets where he’d been celebrated just a few days earlier. The crowd that shouted epithets and spat on him, that cheered his march toward death. What interests me today is the fact that this was the very same crowd, the very same people, who had hailed and cheered him less than a week before. What, I wonder, happened that they would turn on him in that way?

Before I continue down this path, I want to acknowledge a couple of things. First, I’m not a Jungian psychologist. So, if you are, I apologize. This will not be a deep dive into Jung’s theory of the “shadow side” or “shadow self” that was his life’s work. The second thing I want to say is that I will be using words like “shadow,” “dark” and similar terms in ways that may give those images a negative connotation. I want to acknowledge that this might be perceived as perpetuating stereotypes that equate “black” with “bad.” In the words of Unitarian Universalist religious educator Jacqui James, “Ascribing negative and positive values to black and white enhances the institutionalization of this culture's racism.” She goes on to say “we must acknowledge that darkness has a redemptive character, that in darkness there is power and beauty. The dark nurtured and protected us before our birth... The words black and dark don't need to be destroyed or ignored, only balanced and reclaimed in their wholeness.”[3] And, so, I invite you to join me in the challenge of hearing words like “shadow” and “dark” as purely descriptive and metaphorical, and remembering that these terms also have inherently redemptive meanings and qualities.

The first thing I will say about the shadow self is that we’ve all got one. Whether we care to admit it or not, as long as we’re human, none of us is purely good and virtuous. There is a part of us, or many parts, that we’re not proud of. Psychologist Carder Stout defines our shadow self as “an amalgamation of everything about ourselves that we have lost, cut off, ignored, hidden, denied, and run from throughout life. One of the primary reasons the shadow is perceived as dark and threatening,” he tells us, “is because it holds the aspects of our nature that we judge as “bad”—as unacceptable or wrong in some way. In essence, the dark shadow is the deep well of our unwanted character traits.”[4] Because we’re socialized to see these parts of ourselves as “bad,” we try mightily to hide them from others, and even ourselves. We will readily talk about all the good deeds we do, like snow blowing our neighbors’ sidewalks, but we’d never admit, for example, to occasionally stealing his newspaper to read the Sunday comics. To put this in Biblical terms, the snake in the garden of Eden represents Adam and Eve’s shadow self, tempting them to eat the fruit of the tree when God had told them not to. The Catholic St. Paul was wrestling with his shadow self when he wrote in his letter to the Romans, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate, I do.” We can, if it helps, think of our shadow self as the devil that perches on our shoulder, whispering in our ear, the counterbalance to the angel which, hopefully, sits on our other shoulder.

If you are looking for proof that we all have a shadow self, a shadow side, look no further than the “PostSecret” project. This began in 2005 as an interactive art project that asked people to submit anonymous post cards that confessed a secret that you’ve never shared with anyone else. The project has since blossomed into a web site that garners more than 4 million hits a month, and a touring exhibition of many of the post cards. The founder of the project says that in the decade since it began he’s received more than a million post cards from people wanting to reveal some of the hidden parts of themselves.

The second thing I want to say about the shadow self is that, the harder we try to hide it and the more we try to deny it, the more power it has over us. Think about anger, for instance. If someone does something that makes us angry, and we don’t tell or confront them about it, if we try to bury that anger, it festers inside us. It can eat us up from the inside out, until it blossoms into resentment or even rage. And then, when some seemingly unrelated and insignificant incident happens later, we erupt like a volcano and spew our wrath out all over some unsuspecting and undeserving victim, like one of our children. They can’t see that they weren’t the cause of the outburst. They can’t connect the dots all the way back to their original source. All they know is that Daddy got mad at them and hit them. I know that it feels good to be part of the Palm Sunday crowd. But until we admit that we’re also the Good Friday rabble, the shadow self will hold us back and keep us from becoming the balanced and fully mature people we seek to be

To a certain extent, it’s natural for us to be afraid of our shadow self. Who wants to think of themselves as carrying around these animalistic impulses? There are some great videos on YouTube of toddlers seeing their actual shadows for the first time. They’re fun to watch and I urge you to take a look at them. To a child, when they see their shadows they all have the same reaction: shock, followed by fear. Their natural reaction is to try literally to run away from their shadows, but of course they can’t. It’s a perfect metaphor for how we are with our shadow selves. We’re shocked by them, and some of us spend our lives trying to run away from them by denying their existence or repressing them.

But to be fully developed, fully authentic and mature individuals, we need to move beyond our psychological toddler stage. We need to find a way to stop running away from our shadows, of actually turning toward them and even embracing them, the so-called darker parts of our nature. Because when we face these parts of ourselves, we find that they can actually become the source of our freedom, the key that unlocks so many doors. Again, Dr. Carder Strout writes: “As we learn to accept and care for the once-rejected parts of ourselves, an extraordinary thing happens: they become our allies. It is attending to the difficult or darker aspects that allows us to grow and evolve into our best selves. Learning to dialogue with the shadow helps to diminish its power. Gradually coming to love the shadow gives us access to the wisdom that it holds for us at its core.”

This movement from denial and rejection, to awareness, then acceptance and eventually embracing our shadow selves is a private process. But here in our religious community we can support each other in that pursuit. Admittedly, that will take courage. The courage to be vulnerable with each other. The courage to remove the masks that hide our real selves – the angels and the devils of our nature – from each other. We need to build bonds of trust and love that make it safe, that encourage us and empower us to take the risk of admitting to each other that our own personal progress isn’t always onward and upward forever. We need to be there for each other, so that we all can trust that someone will catch us when we stumble and fall. That we will be loved, no matter what, warts and all. This is the primary task of a faith community: to enable each of us to walk through the valley of the shadow without fear, because we know that we are not alone.

May it be so.

Closing Words

Our closing words today come from Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Wayne Arnason. He writes:
Take courage friends.
The way is often hard, the path is never clear,
and the stakes are very high.
Take courage.
For deep down, there is another truth:
you are not alone.



[1] “I Believe” by Frankie Laine

[2] A reference to the Chinese fable “The Empty Pot.” <

[3] Jacqui James “Dark and Light, Light and Dark”