Victory Over the Shadow

"Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. ...if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected."

Carl Jung, "Psychology and Religion"

Jean Cocteau's Orpheus
It is common practice to establish power over humanity's darker impulses - vices, weaknesses, faults - by naming them and giving them life separate from our own. In today's culture, we place anthropomorphic human traits on these less-than-admirable qualities inside ourselves which we do not have a grasp of, in the hopes of making them relate-able. Through seeing our addictions and destructive tendencies as tractable, autonomous entities, we hope to increase our sense of control over them. We name our inner monsters. We give them specific identities, all in the hopes of reigning them in, training and domesticating them, even exorcising them.

We know them all. Envy's green eyed monster. The specters of chemical dependency and addiction. The slobbering dogs of lust. Many more exist in our culture. For some, vices are as pets to be disciplined, or boils to be lanced. They are things of and about us and yet outside of us.

Doing this comes with a risk, though. In establishing separate identities for our idiosyncrasies and foibles, we run the risk of inadvertently abdicating our personal responsibility for them. Like that crazed, hyperactive puppy, or the malignant tumor growing without our consent, we consign ourselves to sitting by and watching it happen, powerless and fractured from that which ails us. In that case, is there a more useful metaphor we can apply when confronting these challenges?

I don't shy from discussing the human tendency for lingering in darkness and shadow. I find the shadow metaphor most useful. The shadow is something we create. We do not have control over its physical properties and yet it does not have a life of its own. Shadows lend their very existence to light, and the notion of destroying the shadow - one still propagated as conceivable - implies a final metaphysical solution, a dissolution of the whole self, which strikes me as a bit extreme.

These are rather primordial constructs, so it is no coincidence that noted psychiatrist Carl Jung pioneered this modern notion of the shadow self. He spoke of incorporating the shadow in as much of our conscious process as possible. Doing so actually brings us closer to elements within us that are healthy, and open, and useful. Our shadow selves actually place the light that surrounds us into sharp relief. Conscious knowledge of our darker impulses can sharpen our knowledge of where our light is located.  I believe that the truth of living a good life - as is almost always the case - lies somewhere in between the dimensions of light and shadow - a tightrope, or a razor - and if we make the mistake of denying the shadow altogether, we become more susceptible to its influence.

Art and pop culture have important things to say about light and dark, framed in the construct of a shamanic style journey into the underworld of our own potential for dark acts. Carl Jung was the psychiatrist who discussed the mythic implications of Star Wars, among other things, as a way through these ideas. These same themes run heavily through the Orpheus myth, and notably, filmmaker Jean Cocteau's visual examinations of artists' relationships with the shadow world. Very recently, the brilliant movie 'Take Shelter' examined the fractured state between light and dark and how denial of darkness leads to more darkness.

"A domain of evil it is. In it you must go."
Human civilization can be partially described as the relationship between what appears to be and what lies underneath. Some people are exposed to the darker elements of life at a younger age, and this colors their perception of the relationship between happy-go-lucky affectations and the monstrous landscapes they protect. Souls driven into the 'shadowlands' before their time may see dark intentions everywhere, even where they do not exist.

Others are raised in an environment where they see things merely as how they appear. They are discouraged from looking under rocks and opening their cellar doors. They have the luxury of being sheltered from it long enough to get a solid grasp of their potential for positive purpose, and integrity. These people have a harder time believing that the shadow is nearly as omnipresent as Jung suggested. They are not wrong to live this way, nor are those who dwell in the shadow wrong to do as they do. They are merely products of their environments, but it behooves everyone interested in exploring their metaphysical growth to plumb the depths and scour the skies for all their best and worst potential, and take care not to shun either one too much, for fear of losing balance and falling.

American Culture is steeped in qualities that deny the shadow at every turn. We do so at our peril. I feel that our culture portrays a veneer of inclusive liberation, but no one is fooled. Beneath it all, we are an intensely repressed and puritanical society. How can one read through the most successful headlines on the most successful news sites and not see how we confront our fears of our own darkness by seeking out stories about others succumbing to it? The media, in turn, both anticipates and stokes the inevitable outrage that results from its own titillating headlines, by turns generating it and preying upon it.

Any society that does not give itself the room to discuss its own propensity for darkness is doomed to repeat its worst impulses again and again. Sure, there are people wandering the world - and I know some of them - who are genuinely elated all of the time. Their happiness is not a mask. They wander the earth like curious explorers, so anxious to take on the next challenge and so full of vigor and energy and enthusiasm for absolutely everything. There may be periods in our life when we are enthused with this sense of integrity and purpose. For most people, though, there is almost invariably a reckoning, and when it comes, we need to be ready. After all, tackling an enemy you do not understand is folly.

Mr. Scratch takes over
There is a flip side to this, though, and it goes back to the theme of balance. The shadow is clearly the side that leads to chaos and ruin and self-deception and harming others. I do not condone the shadow. It must exist, however, in order for our best qualities to have real permanence and meaning for us. The danger lies in dwelling too long in the darker places. When I speak about being ready for the shadow, I don't mean hunkering down with gas masks. The militia mindset taking hold in small quarters around the world - possibly no larger than it has ever been at any point in history but certainly being given a louder voice now - is a result of seeing the worst in everything all of the time. There is a difference, I would plead to someone in a state of constant fear and despair, between taking regular stock of your shadow side and giving yourself over to it.

I am concerned about how our society's deep, encroaching fear of the fascistic potential of shared responsibility is denying us the benefits of an open, shared culture in fighting the shadow impulse. This fear - in part propagated by extreme interpretations of rugged individualism - is fracturing our sense of self. It widens our alienation from our shadow selves and puts us in a state of denial about our propensity for dark thoughts and instincts. When entire communities that cannot share and affirm their own fears with one another, crime rates soar, domestic violence incidents go up, and peoples are generally unhappier.

I'm also concerned about 'not in my backyard' religiosity and how it has draped a fetishistic cloak over human frailty. That we are frail is inevitable. How we confront that frailty is of utmost importance. Those who would demand that the shadow never show itself often find themselves most in its thrall. Demands for perfection - in part fueled by denial of the shadow - require that the appearance of consistency be upheld at all costs, no matter how unrealistic or absurd that expectation might be. In religion, in politics, at the workplace, we see what happens when the obsession with maintaining a public facade of absolute magnanimity, be it in oil drilling, energy trading, or preaching the gospel - leads to an explosion of exploitation, corruption and abuse that teaches us absolutely nothing because its very existence is denied.

Dark impulses like greed and selfishness weaken society. By denying and fearing the presence of such impulses, we allow the worst in us to fester. By opening the cellar door to peer into the darkness, we don't run the risk of that darkness running over everything in our lives so long as we stay mindful, unafraid and cognizant of what a fall would mean.


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