Predators and Pathologies: The Shadows of Living Systems

By Devin Vodicka

It is important to be honest in confronting the reality that living systems have a dark side.  In natural systems, predators consume their prey for their own benefit.  Sentient beings develop pathologies, sometimes harmless and also sometimes very harmful to self and to others.  Suicide and murder are extreme examples and there are many more hazards and dangers that we could add to a list.  

A helpful frame from integral thinkers is the concept of “shadows” that must be acknowledged and confronted in order for us to develop as individuals and in communities.  In Christanity we have concepts such as sin nature and biological self-interest can come at the expense of others.  How do we protect our own identities and also remain respectful and supportive of others? When does taking care of one self cause harm to another? 

Photo by Bob Price on

“Shine a light on it or bring it out of the darkness.”

Shadow Work: A Simple Guide to Transcending The Darker Aspects of Yourself, Kimberly Fosu, 2020

I believe that we must take responsibility for ourselves and for the community.  In order to do that in a holistic manner we must be introspective and also interactive.  Whether we are referring to our internal shadows or to the dark side of what is happening in communities, we must begin by noticing, wondering, and then having the will to identify and address behaviors that are causing harm.  Listening deeply to one another is critical so that we can identify blind spots within ourselves as individuals and also in communities.  Expanding the circle of inclusion is imperative to ensure diversity of perspectives and experiences.  

There are productive frameworks and models for both the internal process (Marc Brackett is one of my favorites here) as well as at the community or collective level.  Leaders who recognize their responsibilities to address the shadows quickly learn that this is not an easy path and it is helpful to frequently orient to the desired future state in order to sustain motivation and commitment to the change process.  

“Remembering and speaking what often seems unspeakable is inevitably a painful process for victims and perpetrators, bystanders and witnesses. Any such process can only be regarded as successful or reasonably complete once the pain, outrage, betrayal, suffering, and all the other feelings have been voiced and heard and once responsibility has been taken. It is only then that the social body as a whole can move beyond the roles of victim and victimizer to creative and healing resolutions.”

Facing the Collective Shadow, Kremer and Rothberg, 1999

Importantly, self-improvement and community improvement requires us to be connected with one another.  While there are benefits in self-reflection, there are reasons why we seek out friends, coaches, mentors, therapists, counselors, and advisors.  At the community level, there are also reasons we often bring in consultants.  It is helpful to have an “outside” perspective to inform the “inside” of whatever circle we are currently inhabiting.  

When we serve as that outsider, we have a responsibility to be a mirror and to provide the necessary support to courageously confront the shadows.  This is often uncomfortable and can cause tension in our interactions.  We must be brave and resilient in the face of this adversity.  Along the way, we should stay curious and empathetic to promote and sustain strong relationships.  After all, it is through relationships that we influence living systems.  As a result, confronting our shadows is imperative to have strong and healthy living systems for both ourselves as individuals and for us as communities and as a society. 

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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