One day Miss Berry, my first grade teacher, announced that we were to have blood tests. In a few days we would go to the school nurse who would prick our fingers, squeeze out a drop of blood, apply it to a glass slide, and then we would come back to our rooms. It wouldn’t really hurt very much she said. Just a momentary pinprick. We must take these permission slips home, have them signed by our parents, and bring them back.
That afternoon as I rode home on the school bus, I made my mind into a wordless, imageless blank. Almost of its own volition, my right hand crept into the pocket of my dress where it found a small crumpled piece of paper. Just a scrap of paper. I looked in determined fascination at the passing scenery, ignoring the hand that secretly tore the permission slip to shreds in the darkness of my pocket. I shifted the unimportant pieces of paper to my left hand, which moved slowly and casually to the open window. I looked at the chattering, fidgeting children in the bus and forced myself to smile and speak to the child sitting to my right (usually I kept to myself) as I ignored the fingers of my left hand that casually opened and allowed the scraps of paper to slip stealthily into oblivion.
“My mother decided not to sign it,” I told Miss Berry when she asked me for my permission slip. “She’s a nurse, so she’ll prick my finger herself.” As I sat alone in my corner of the classroom watching my classmates file back from the school nurse, each with a cotton ball between thumb and middle finger, I felt a deep sense of shame. But I willed myself to ignore it and banished the tiny ugly creature from which it came to a dark corner of my unconscious self so neither I nor anyone else would see my shadow. I was a good girl, I told myself. And I breathed a sigh of relief because I had escaped the pain of the finger prick.
Such is the morality of youth. Honesty is not very important to vulnerable little girls for whom the most pressing need is to survive with a maximum of need fulfillment and a minimum of personal discomfort. At this, the earliest level of human morality, “good” is anything that protects us from pain and punishment. “Bad” is anything that hurts or gets us into trouble.
At six, I knew it was wrong to lie to my teacher and not to tell my mother about the blood test, but my need to avoid pain had top priority. Because this need was so strong, I had no recourse but to ignore and deny the truth I knew at a deeper level: I had broken some rules that were important to the adults in my life. I had lied. I had been bad.
And so, like all children, I learned to play the game of hide and seek. Hiding my secret badness behind a wall of denial became a way of life for many years. I believed that because I conformed in public and gained the approval of the people in power, I must really be good, regardless of how I thought or acted in private. In other words, I didn’t know how to separate the game I played and the mask I wore from the way I really thought and acted when unobserved by others, which, of course, was not always “good.”
There’s nothing abnormal about this in children. In fact, research into moral development indicates that we all pass through this stage as we wander through the murky forest of ignorance toward the light of moral maturity. Only we must be careful not to stay there overlong. Years of hiding and feeding the tiny ugly creatures we created as children can transform them into walking, talking conscienceless monsters; and nothing on this earth is more dangerous or devastating to humanity’s hopes for peace and justice than the fearful, dishonest, single-minded, self-interested shadow of a mask-wearing adult in a position of power.
We have to stop our finger-pointing. The real enemy is not out there: it’s right here inside you and me. It’s our very own shadow. Fortunately, each of us has the power to take away its power. We do this by committing ourselves to an ongoing three-step program of observing, acknowledging, and forgiving:
(1) pay attention to your inner life so you can see your shadow the next time it shows up,
(2) acknowledge the truth of it to yourself and others,
The Wilbur Award is given by the Religion Communicators Council for excellence in communicating religious faith and values in the public arena and for encouraging understanding among faith groups on a national level.