Perhaps everyone has two shadows. One shadow follows us, the other lies within us and disregards the presence of light. This second shadow can never really be seen, because it’s created by our histories, the places we’ve come from, our thoughts and feelings and memories. This second shadow can only be felt.

And in today’s culture we are faced with a constant barrage of information about people: a photo or caption or soundbite invites us to know. It is all too easy to think that because we see, we understand. The challenge is to look, or, perhaps, feel around blindly, behind the curtain, through the filter, and into the murky unknown of being human.

The challenge now, as it has always been, is to think about ourselves and about the lives within the people around us. In Apology the Ancient Greek philosopher Plato recounts his mentor Socrates’ trial for blasphemy and corrupting youths by inspiring them to think. Given the choice to walk away and never teach again or die, Socrates asserted, the life which is unexamined is not worth living”.

But, as the death of Socrates demonstrated, examining life can be dangerous. It means facing the uncomfortable and unpredictable byproducts of questioning what we know and accept to be true. But the uncomfortable and unpredictable have the ability to pull us into deepened, interconnected realities. As writer, activist, Modern American philosopher Rebecca Solnit wrote,

The unexamined life is not worth living, as the aphorism goes, but perhaps an honorable and informed life requires examining others’ lives, not just one’s own. Perhaps we do not know ourselves unless we know others. And if we do, we know that nobody is nobody.

From experience, I know that to examine the lives of others is hard. First we have to look through our own biased perspectives. Then we have to wade through first impressions and trust that curiosity will lead us to empathy and compassion. Only then can we begin to truly feel the complexity of the lives enmeshed within news stories and history books and social media feeds.

Art has the startling ability to push us beyond passive observation into a place of seeing and thinking and feeling. Projections surrounding artist Kara Walker’s Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On) cast the viewer’s shadow alongside the silhouetted subjects and transform viewing into interaction.

Insurrection! (Our Tools Were Rudimentary, Yet We Pressed On). By Kara Walker. 2000.

Walker’s shadows are an invitation into the uncomfortable and unknown exist within every person, every experience. As Walker said about her silhouettes,

What I recognized, besides narrative and historicity and racism, was this very physical displacement: the paradox of removing a form from a blank surface that in turn creates a black hole. I was struck by the irony of so many of my concerns being addressed: blank / black, hole/whole, shadow/substance, etc.”

In my limited time on this earth, I’ve come to understand that life is all the more worth living when you’ve asked questions, been uncomfortable, looked into the “black hole. And I know that to move forward as “honorable and informed” people, we must learn to look past the facades of filtered images and headlines and assumptions into the shadowy humanness that resides in everything. And with the guidance of art and words and stories, we must learn to take up courage and curiosity and then dive into our shadow worlds.


Painting references:

Kara Walker ©Chuck Close
Rebecca Solnit ©Mike Kepka