Working in the Shadows

Just a few days before I began drafting this essay, the best gymnast in the world, Simone Biles, won a gold medal in courage. Following what was certainly a heart-wrenching decision to withdraw from events in the Olympic games citing mental health reasons, she tweeted, “the outpouring of love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.” An iconic figure in sports, the world of strength and stamina and conquest—someone who from all appearances was invulnerable—projected a level of humanity and humility that resonates with many of us who are mere mortals. Perhaps now her biggest conquest is, ironically, this ostensible failure. In this moment, let us all celebrate this action—laying claim to health, to her authenticity, at a time when it is sorely needed by many who are told to be strong, to pursue success at all costs. Thank you for this act of heroism, Simone Biles! 

Mental health concerns are the most often cited campus issue by senior student affairs officers. And the issue extends beyond college campuses and student populations to society. What am I learning about mental health on this journey and what might it mean for mental health on campuses? I’ll bet you’re thinking I’m going to say, “Get outside more and you’ll feel better.” Yes, I am going to say that, but my experience and message is much more nuanced than that. 

I mentioned in my first essay that one of the inspirations for this sabbatical journey is my friend Mike Sweeney’s passion for a full life in the short time he has. Like most decisions we make in life, there are multiple catalysts for our actions. Owing to a series of major life events prior to this sabbatical journey, I found myself alone, with a need to recalibrate my life. Some of the anchors of my life were cut loose, and I became aware (with the help of friends) that I might want to spend some time on a retreat, reflecting on my relationships, my work, and myself. 

I chose to do this retreat—this encounter—on the road, on trails, and in a tent. I chose to be more solitary than I have ever been in my life. After all, how could I listen to myself—know myself—with the noise and clatter that surrounded my traditional life, the life of the institutional person? But noise doesn’t only come from outside. Apart from being a member of the academy, I possess fears, sadness and limitations that are not just a product of the university, but they preceded my entry into it. To be sure, the institution exerts pressure on us to be compliant, often suppressing authenticity. However, we do have some choice in how we respond to these realities, although this certainly differs by degree based on our capital—social, economic, and cultural. Ultimately, dealing with the realities of the institution in a healthy and growth-producing way will always require self-knowledge and courage on the part of the individual—courage to ensure that we understand and act from places of power and vulnerability in shaping our own experience and the lives of others—most notably our students. 

In an earlier essay, I cited the joy of my experience in this journey. Especially when I’m steeped in nature—hiking on a trail, looking at the colors of mountain flowers, or looking over an amazing vista—I am smiling inside and sometimes even outside. I’m noticing a world that too seldom penetrated my consciousness prior to this trip. It has been healing, even enlivening. Among other things, along with other dimensions of nature, I am learning that I am pretty good company. As someone who was always in earnest need of company (or media), this journey has taught me that this isn’t necessary. Still, there is another side of this experience—of seeing myself.

I am facing dimensions of myself that are harder to acknowledge and understand. At times these confrontations with myself lead to feelings of sadness, depression, and loneliness.  This extended time in the wilderness has taught me important lessons about the roots of some of my dark experiences. Much of it, I’ve determined, comes from compromising my truest self, my most sacred values. The loss has come from my fear of speaking truth to myself and others. It comes from holding onto dreams and desires that aren’t aligned with my authentic self. It also comes from regrets and failures and fears that I haven’t yet been able to release. It is about ambitions that seduce me away from and obscure my deepest hopes. These ambitions and deceptions often come in the form of frameworks of success defined by society, friends, well-meaning mentors, colleagues, or partners. 

Indeed, on this adventure I have experienced periodic and profound sadness and depression. Drawing from the writings of Thomas Moore, I am convinced that these periods are presented to me as a lesson, not a problem to be dismissed. They are, in Moore’s words, “[my] own invitation to become a person of heart and soul.” (e-book)

I am learning of the creative and healing power of embracing my shadow self on my journey in nature. A few days before this writing, I happened upon a national park I had not heard of before, Craters of the Moon. The entire park is a dramatic exhibit of post-volcanic, igneous residual from explosions under the earth’s surface: under the flourishing trees and the green grass. The surface is now covered with something that looks like thousands of acres of mud. Upon close examination, what appears to be mud is hard and lifeless matter. While ugly on the surface it is a beautiful illustration of the creative forces of nature and of a creative process that is continually in progress. When the metaphorical heat and lava is suppressed, it comes to an explosion. It creates a mess. But even that mess over time will turn into something beautiful. It will become a channel for an awesome mix of flowing water, lush green trees, and naturally sculptured walls. 

Our shadow parts that might initially result in a mess are waiting to be recognized and honored. We will do well to attend to and be with our personal dark places—not as something to fix, but as a source of wisdom about who we are and what makes us most alive. I’m still working on this—on understanding how my own humanity shapes my interactions with my colleagues and my students. I possess aspirations for goodness and authenticity, on the one hand, but paradoxically even the brightest places can cast shadows. I want to find ways to honor the depression as much as the joy. There are lessons to be learned and growth to be experienced in the most desolate points and places of our lives. And, lest I become too self-absorbed, these lessons I am being taught by the darkness are not just for me, but for others who have been gracious enough to accompany me on this journey, including my family members, friends, students, and colleagues. 

From its origins in the early 20th century, the field of student affairs has embraced a belief in attending to students as whole people. Our forebears recognized something that is imminently true today—that the world needs people who will not settle on easy answers or formulae to ensure a successful society. I maintain that we are fighting against cultural currents that wish to push us away from this core principle. We are tempted to overly specialize and economize, and, as a result, cleanse the humanity out of our work. We are often afraid of the issues that our students might present to us—in part because we are afraid of being confronted by our own missteps and hurts. In this context, we find comfort in hiring mental health professionals to handle the highly fraught realities of growing up in the current world. The truth is that our students don’t just need “doctors.” They need human beings, including mentors, who will walk with them as wounded healers—adults who are willing to explore the depths of the meaning, purpose, and the darkness of our own being so we are equipped to walk alongside our students in their wholeness. 

The consequences of inattention to the dark dimensions of our lives plays out every day in our society. Moore presaged our present social turmoil in 2004, when he wrote: 

The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material success, prepares you for. . .  Today many of the conflicts that threaten the peace, both at home and around the world, stem from raw, naive, and unintelligent prejudices and reactions. Passions routinely break out in violence. It takes a complex view of yourself and your fellow human beings to hold back on hatreds and fears. A mature person is complicated and has complex ideas and values. The minor tonality of a dark night adds a significant and valuable complexity to your personality and way of life.  

Undoubtedly, the realization of this kind of work—the shadow work—with today’s students requires us to seek ourselves and understand both the light and the dark parts of our inner selves. The world of social media and its attention to the value of public image makes attention to the authentic even more pressing. Those of us who are in community with today’s students can realize richer mentoring if we are willing to be taught in our own shadow places, so we have the wisdom to live alongside students in theirs. 

For educators, I invite you to participate in this conversation using the following discussion prompts. [ays_survey id=”5″]

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