This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of leading the service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick. Below, you will find the video and text of my sermon.
My name is Irene. I teach the weekly yoga classes here, facilitate the monthly labyrinth walks, and I’m the squirrel herder in chief for the Frederick chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans.
In April of 1986, the number four reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic melted down. An uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction took place. The reactor core ruptured and then caught fire, releasing radioactive contamination into the atmosphere for nine days. The radiation levels released into the surrounding earth, air and water were 400 times that of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. The initial explosion, attempts to contain the radiation and exposure on the part of people who once lived near or worked on the reactor puts the predicted death toll upwards of 4,000 when combining short and long-term radiation related deaths. And that’s just the human lives. This horrifying combination of power and destruction is one of only two nuclear energy disasters rated at seven—the maximum severity—on the International Nuclear Event Scale.
Now here’s where the story gets a little weird. It’s been a little over 30 years since the disaster. The area immediately surrounding the nuclear power plant was largely abandoned due to radiation. The exclusion zone runs 19 miles in all directions from the power plant. Photos of that land show a post-apocalyptic aesthetic, but only of the human structures. What no one expected was the reclaiming of that land by other species.
The exclusion zone is now one of the most biologically diverse locations in the former Soviet Union. Indeed, there are more species present now than before the disaster. Along with elk, deer, foxes, boar, bear and wolves, rare and endangered species like the Przewalski’s horse and European lynx have been sighted. This has translated to a new industry of eco-tourism of the exclusion zone. Participants are led through the Palieski state radioecological reserve, which is the name for the Belarus side of the Exclusion zone, to experience the “accidental wildlife sanctuary.” The reserve claims that it is now home to 70% of the country’s bird species.
Disasters take many forms, of course. The Chernobyl disaster was unarguably a human generated crisis. But nature has her own catastrophes. In this time of climate change, we’re seeing a huge rise in forest fires, and those are not always directly caused by humans. A lightning strike in exactly the wrong place can trigger a conflagration that spreads for miles. Fires destroy everything in their path. An entire ecosystem can literally go up in smoke.
But after a fire, something new occurs – growth. The ashes return nutrients to the earth. Underbrush is consumed and sunlight can once again reach the forest floor. Insects that preyed upon the local old growth trees are wiped out. Most of the young, healthy trees survive and go through a growth spurt courtesy of all that extra sunlight. Biodiversity increases. The remains of burned trees offer tempting habitats to birds and mammals. The new, lush shrubs and grasses created by all that nutrient-rich soil attract grazing mammals like deer. Those animals attract predators – coyotes, wolves, bobcats and even bears. If enough time passes, the forest returns stronger and more diverse than it was before the fire.
Volcanic eruptions destroy everything in their path and create new land. Floods wipe out entire communities and enrich the soil. Earthquakes shape the continent.
As a member of the earth centered spirituality community, my greatest teacher is nature. I look for patterns in the world around us as a path to follow in my own life. What is true on the macrocosm can be true on the microcosm. When we experience a disaster in our lives, the language we use to describe it is the same language we use to describe a natural disaster. We can hear it in the metaphors we use – our lives explode, burn, collapse, or are struck by lightning.
That which has been can never come again after disaster strikes. We have not yet figured out how to turn back the clock and unmake a tragedy. But the pattern in front of us, playing out on this beautiful planet we all share, shows the path forward.
There is an unfortunate tendency in our culture to meet a crisis in someone else’s life with positive thinking platitudes. In our discomfort in the face of distress, too often we find ourselves repeating the things we were told: ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ ‘When God closes a door, she opens a window.’ ‘You just have to find the silver lining.’
I don’t think any of those are true. Just as a nuclear disaster is a horrifying accident, tragedies in our lives are not the machinations of some higher power trying to teach us a lesson. Terrible things happen. They happen to kind people as well as cruel, people with resources as well as people with no safety net. We all suffer terrible blows as part of our journey on this human path. We lose people. We find ourselves in abusive situations. We get struck by calamities that occur out of the blue. A bolt of lightning on a sunny day. A forest fire in a quiet glade.
It is our response to finding ourselves in a place of darkness that influences what comes after. I do not believe in disasters as lessons. I do believe that we can choose to create meaning when terrible things happen. We can choose to focus on the new growth or we can choose to focus on the decaying structures of life before calamity.
A few months ago, I was in a heathen ceremony here at the UUCF. It was early spring, and many of us were talking about what we hoped for this year to be. We were referencing how hard and painful last year was for so many of us. When it came time for my friend Jack to speak, he said ‘Let the darkness be soil.’ I have turned those words over and over since that moment. Jack is absolutely right. In that space between the lightning strike and the new growth, we have the power to transform ourselves.
When a seed begins to grow, the first thing it does is send out roots. It figures out where it is. One of my very dear friends is a living miracle. A few years ago, a terrible accident resulted in her being burned so badly that it was anyone’s guess as to whether she would survive. Whether she would keep her legs, much less walk on them, was unknown. Her life, as she had known it, was over. Her response to her passage through fire and destruction never ceases to inspire me. One of the things that she’s said to me, and to others, is ‘the only way out is through.’
When we force positivity, when we try to gloss over pain or avoid it by immediately trying to go back to ‘normal,’ we do not give ourselves a chance to grow roots. You can force a seed to open above the ground, but the plant that results is weak. Our darkness is our soil. Before we ever send a green leaf up above the surface, we must first root deeply into the dark. We must open to the experience contained in the soil around us. It’s how we find the fuel for growth.
Letting the darkness be soil means feeling our emotions. It means sitting with discomfort. It means touching the broken places and leaning into the pain. I love Reverend Carl’s saying about how a heart can break: that it can shatter, or it can break open to ultimately hold more love. Interestingly, we’re beginning to see psychology make a turn from forced positivity to authentic emotional expression. A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology demonstrated that when people expressed the emotions they felt, regardless of whether the emotions were pleasant or unpleasant, they reported greater life satisfaction and fewer depressive symptoms. They were ultimately happier.
A little over 6 months ago, I lost a very close friend to brain cancer. During the end of her life and the earlier part of my grieving, I created a grief altar. Grief altars can be very simple – mine was a photo of her, a couple candles, and a black scarf. In the beginning, I would just sit there and cry. I would light the candle and weep, maybe talk to her a little bit. I would lean in and allow the tsunami building in my heart to hit. The uncontrollable wave of grief would crash around me, and sometimes I felt like I might drown in it. But here’s the thing – our emotions are part of fluctuating patterns. After a huge wave passed, I would feel more peaceful. More quiet. This is the power of rooting into darkness – of leaning in. It doesn’t make those feelings go away, but it gives them space to breathe. And when we allow our emotions space, they allow us some space as well.
Emotions will not be pushed aside. They will not be buried or silenced. All you do when you suppress them is extend your suffering. The only way out is through. The only way to learn again how to breathe, how to be, how to grow in the places that were destroyed, is to support your process.
Shadows take many forms. Grief is an easy example because it’s hard to suppress. However, adults in our culture are generally masters at suppression. Some of us are so disconnected from our deeper emotions that we don’t even know what words to use to label a feeling when we have one. We just shove that sensation into the psychological closet and hope that it doesn’t break the lock on the door.
Within the world of earth centered spirituality is an area of focus we call Shadow Work. Shadow Work involves addressing the repressed, hidden or destructive parts of our psychology and working to heal and integrate those places. I’m going to emphasize the word ‘integrate’ here. Our culture includes a good deal of forced positivity. The ultimate impact of avoiding ‘unpleasant’ emotions like grief, anger, frustration and pain is to cut people off from themselves. We gaslight trauma survivors and compare tragedies like there’s some sort of a contest to see who can ignore the most misery. If we can prove that we are making it at least on the surface despite terrible anguish, then somehow we win.
I feel a little bit like Dr Seuss’s Lorax anymore. Throughout the story of the Lorax, the character says ‘I am the Lorax and I speak for the trees.’ More and more frequently, I feel like I should be saying ‘I am the witch and I speak for the shadow.’
Becoming whole through integrating rather than suppressing our shadows offers us incredible strength, wisdom and power. Righteous rage in the face of injustice is a powerful weapon. Grief is the proof of love. Assertiveness sets and maintains boundaries. Pride protects us from abuse. Imagine if we all had access to the information and energy contained in our shadows. If we were able to safely feel and express our authentic emotions the world would be a different place. Positive thinking and focusing on only good things is limiting. Becoming whole is more important than becoming light.
For many of us, Shadow Work includes getting professional help. We approach our Shadows on multiple fronts and the ability to fuse science and spirituality is one of the things I value most about my spiritual path. However, the first step to doing Shadow Work is quite simple. It involves observation. When we discover an emotional reaction that is out of proportion to a situation or stimulus, we take a closer look. If breaking a dish makes you rage or cry or go into a stress spiral, it’s time to get out the mirror and take a deeper look. The emotional wave that rises in response to a minor trigger is a clue that something in your shadow needs to be resolved.
When we refuse to look at our own behaviors, feelings and shadows, we can cause immense harm to ourselves and others. We blame others for situations we created. We lash out at the people who love us. We repeat the same unhealthy patterns over and over and over again and don’t understand why we can’t get it ‘right.’ We wrestle with internal demons that don’t actually want to fight us. They just want to be heard.
One of my favorite quotes is ‘You can get bitter or you can get better. Your choice.’ Despite all the signaling of our culture, we are still responsible for ourselves. We are not to blame for our grief and trauma, but we are responsible for what happens next. When trauma occurs, we need to remember that we are seeds in the darkness. We need to send out roots into the grief or pain or frustration. We must allow ourselves to feel our emotions.
When we discover something locked deep in our psychological closet, it is our responsibility to draw that shadow out into the light. This, too, is part of growing strong roots. By working with and integrating our shadows, we are able to grow stronger and more stable. We become the forest after the fire, more lush and diverse than before. We become the wildlife preserve after the disaster – a miracle of growth unlooked-for, unexpected and impossible to imagine before calamity descended.
Carl Jung said “People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” May we all become better listeners to our darkness. And may the consciousness there be the fertile soil that heralds new growth.