My Shadow, for Better or Worse
In the book, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Zweig and Abrams, John Sanford discusses the story of Jekyll and Hyde in terms of the conflict we all face with our dark side. As an Episcopal priest and Jungian analyst, Sanford focuses on the power our unacknowledged urges have on us. Even more, he stresses the destructive power of those urges when they are not simply confronted but identified with. He quotes Carl Jung that we become what we do. "Once he decides to be Hyde," Sanford writes, "even if only for a while, he tends to become Hyde."
Evil, in other words, may be kept in its place if it is acknowledged. But if it is experiencedómade realóit will grow in strength. Jesus purportedly said, "Get thee behind me, Satan," acknowledging the presence of Evil but denying it influence in his actions.
For most people, the problem with evil is acknowledging its potential inside us. Our potential for evil is not the same as the presence of evil. Yet the potentialóthe threatócreates pressures to protect us from all the rest of our unconscious selves. If our occasional glimpses of those destructive potentials we carry as a natural component of being human cause us to nail the lid on our unconscious and deny all of it, we are denying as well an important part of ourselves. Only our socially acceptable aspects are admitted to. This can set up internal conflicts (also often unacknowledged) that interfere with our ordinary lives. We can even project our darkness onto others and criticize them for doing what we unconsciously want to do. Our fascination with violence portrayed by the media is a way of reassuring ourselves that it exists "out there," without having to admit its potential within us.
But thereís more to our shadow than violence and mayhem. Thereís more to it even than the unacceptable urges we learned to repress in order to get approval from our parents when we were children. Our shadow, in Jungian terms, is a good deal larger than that, and contains our very creativity.
Sometimes Iím aware that only a part of me is present and available to me. Sometimes Iím emotionally flat. I can find lots of things to do, mostly with my hands. I get satisfaction from building and repairing things. When I have the energy I can spend days around the house, tightening cupboard doors, caulking the bathtub, or building shelves in the garage. I read the paper and some of the magazines we subscribe to. And then, in a quiet moment I realize that Iím not writing.
Writing is both my weathervane and my means for getting in touch with whatís inside me. Keeping up my correspondence with a certain few people opens a window to my depths. If messages from those people tend to collect in my email inbox, Iím reminded that thereís a door closed somewhere. Iím not feeling much of anything, and if I donít feel, then my writing comes out thinóand boring. Itís an appropriate time to dig around, try to see what in my life is causing me to shut down.
I think Iíve faced most of my demons. My occasional dark urges arenít really much worse than those of others, even people I admire. Jealousy, envy, malevolence, I can usually identify them when they come up, and slap them on the back and send them off to bed without my getting caught up in their little dramasóthe incorrigible children of my psyche. If thereís anything really awful in there, if my own personal Mr. Kurtz that Joseph Conrad wrote about is still hiding up that dark river, I havenít seen a sign of him yet.
What shuts me down are usually the ordinary thingsóvisiting relatives, anticipation of an dental appointment, worry about money or new noises in my old car. In the past, of course, there have been the insoluble intricacies of relationships, the inability to untangle the threads of what I wanted from the sticky spiderís web of responsibility. But those days, at least for now, seem over.
I miss them. I hate to say it, but feeling something would be better than this skim milk coasting down the carefully groomed grass to the inevitable end of everything. Not that I especially want to do what Dylan Thomas urged, to "rage against the darkness" of death.
But, on second thought, maybe thatís what Iím doing now, raging against the silence of my inner self, trying to face it down, see its shape, acknowledge it and set aside the demons. If my shadow is not to control me, it must be faced. The last thing I want is for my fear to prevent me from living what life I have left.
Donald Skiff, January 3, 2002