I like to describe the social unconscious as traits that are in shadow for a particular group of people, or for an entire culture. For example, many of us in Shadow Work believe that sexuality is in shadow to a significant degree in American culture. Nearly 30 years ago, a college professor of mine, who was from Switzerland, told the class that his teenage daughter could get on a subway train in Switzerland wearing her bathing suit and think nothing of it. If she did the same thing on an American subway, he noted, she would most likely get stares, inappropriate comments, or worse. Judging by the Super Bowl incident a few years ago, when there was huge outcry and unprecedented fines for the networks when singer Janet Jackson accidentally exposed one of her breasts on television, not much has changed in 30 years. I often contrast this with the lack of outcry when CNN broadcast the bombing of Baghdad in 2003, in which an unknown number of Iraqi civilians were killed.

One of the difficulties in discussing the social unconscious is that it can sound like over-generalising or even stereotyping. Not all Americans have their sexuality in shadow, but many do, in my judgment. Any social shadow can have a big impact on the culture.

I'm fourth-generation Irish, and at this time every year I become aware of the Irish cultural shadow sometimes called "melancholy", which is so evident in Irish music. For many people it provides a traditional excuse to drink a lot on St. Patrick's Day. I've wondered if the melancholy stems, at least in part, from the great potato famine of the 1800s that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The melancholy might be expressing an unmet need to mourn for those who died, by those who had to carry on in order to survive, passed down through the generations.

Back to top