Shadow and Light

I want to talk about confronting the shadow side with courage.

In a leadership program that I co-facilitate we ask people to reflect on what they are a “force for” in their leadership work. This means reaching deeply inside to find and name the part of us that fiercely stands up for what we believe in. It means giving voice to it, rising to meet it, embracing the power of it, and using it courageously.
When people begin to discover what they are a “force for,” they often feel vulnerable, because it is usually experiences of pain and brokenness which have given rise to their inner passion and force. There is also an enormous sense of wonder that enters the room when someone has the courage to revisit the difficult, often scarring experiences, and in the sharing there is a release of hidden, walled-in power which crackles and flares into a warmth-giving fire.

One early December afternoon, when the fields were lightly covered with snow, a group of 25 of us listened intently as a senior police officer in his early 40’s shared his story about being a force for certainty .


Nearly 20 years before, he was a young, unmarried officer stationed in a remote British Columbia town. It was Christmas, and since he was single, he was on duty while the others were celebrating with their children and families. By 8.30 am he knew it would be a long day. There was nothing happening and the clock hands moved slowly. He had been raised as a Catholic, and remembered the times he played with his mother’s rosary as a child. There were moments when he felt an indefinable, but certain feeling of magic, of some larger force surrounding him. A profound and mysterious certainty.

By 9.00 am he decided it might be nice to attend Mass in the town. Of course, he was greeted with great enthusiasm by the families there. As a police officer in a small town, showing up at church got you the “rock star” greeting, he explained with a wry smile. He described what fun it was to feel the warmth of Christmas there, and how he played with a bored little girl in a purple dress sitting in the pew in front of him.

But all too soon, Mass was over, and he couldn’t linger any longer. The long Christmas day still stretched ahead.

Shortly after that, a call finally came. A serious car crash on the highway outside of town. Two snow plows had been clearing the highway, and in the cascading plume of snow an oncoming car had blindly crashed head-on into a snow plow. The plow driver was fine, but the family in the car were all dead. Finally, something to do. He sprang into action. Tough, but this was what all his training was for. He cleared the scene, comforted the plow driver, took measurements, did the calculations, wrote up the details. Slowly the scene cleared.

As the victims were all dead, no ambulance came, but he had to wait nearly an hour for the undertakers to arrive before he could go and perform the next duty: informing the grandparents. Again time yawned as he waited alone on the empty highway in the thickly falling snow. There was a palpable silence. He glanced into the car again, and suddenly noticed that the child in the back seat was a little girl wearing a purple dress. She was holding his mother’s rosary beads. Startled, he could not recall giving them to her at Mass earlier that morning.

The undertakers finally came. He gathered up the family’s Christmas gifts which had been strewn across the road, and prepared himself to take them and the news to the family’s grandparents.

It was not until much, much later when he noticed that one small gift had fallen between the seats of the car. He apologetically explained that he just couldn’t bring himself to go back and return that last small gift. There was something inside of him that was certain he should keep it. Certain there was deeper meaning in the fact that a gift had been left behind. And so he kept it, unopened, for many years. What was in it did not matter to him. What mattered was the connection between the gift, this profoundly difficult experience, and the little girl in the purple dress.

There was a deep silence in the room as he continued to explain that as a police officer he has certainly encountered many other long, long days. But this inner certainty of a higher purpose, his belief in something larger is what sustains him, is what he is a force for. Since then he has been promoted. He tries to teach younger officers how to preserve their feeling of certainty, help them move past their own traumatizing experiences, their fears and doubts.

This inner certainty is what he believes he must continue to be a force for.

And, as we heard him tell the story, we also understood how pressured he is to make change happen in his complex organization. We knew that in his new roles he needs to confront his own fears and doubts again, to re-anchor himself in the magic, the certainty of something larger, more powerful, unknowable, and to feel the power of that, as a way of moving forward into new challenges.

The sharing of this story, as with many stories that I have heard in people’s leadership development journeys moved me deeply. His story reminded me of the “everyday magic” that can surround me at low and difficult moments, of the need for me to stand still and listen to the silences, to accept the meanings in difficult experiences, the small gifts that remain.

It also reminded me to think again about the need to re-examine my broken places in order to truly connect with my inner power and strength. It is profoundly difficult to re-visit these shadows, the experiences of loss, victimization, fear and pain. And yet, as I accompany leaders doing this work, I see how much power is hidden there. Without the courage to re-examine our lives our true power is not accessible, and unavailable to ourselves and others. It offers us some respite, especially when we need to confront the dark places and difficult experiences of leading change, of walking the path towards becoming who we were intended to be.

The police officer who had us captivated and tearful at hearing his story showed personal courage by surfacing and sharing his profound beliefs openly with our group of colleagues and friends. He inspired us to look within ourselves again, and not to be afraid to name that essence, that force which sustains us, which helps us to find our way, and in so doing, offers others a clearer path forward when we feel lost.

When You Get Lost
Tell me what you do
when you get lost
Tell me

Tell me what you feel
How things look to you
What happens in your head
What you say to yourself
Tell me

Can you see anything
when you get lost
Can you hear what’s about you
Do you perceive life at all
Tell me

Tell me what scares you most
when you get lost
Can you draw from deep inside
What you use to hold you up
Do you move yourself differently
Tell me

Tell me what you do
to reach that special calm
Can you direct a prayer
When do you know to wait
When do you know to risk
Tell me

Tell me what you do
when you get lost
Tell me

Then tell me
How you know
When you not lost
no more
Tell me.

–Carol Prejean Zippert