November 13, 2009
The term, ‘human shadow’ has gained some currency and been bandied about by mostly New Agers for many years now. It is also the subject of my all-time favorite bumper-sticker, “Come over to the Dark Side, we’ve got cookies”. The best descriptive definition of it that I’ve heard came from Robert Bly, “…all that we drag behind us in a long burlap bag.” I have come to understand it best, however, through some people who seem to have exemplified it in sundry outstanding ways. O.J. Simpson comes immediately to mind. Do you suppose his inner Heisman Trophy winner has conversations with his inner ‘slasher’? He has two aspects of himself that are so many light years apart that it is hard to imagine them co-existing inside of one persona. But, apparently…they do.
Then there was the Long Island Railroad shooter, Colin Ferguson, who killed 5 people and wounded 19 more. When it came time to go to trial, he was insistent that he be allowed to defend himself. For me, this conjured up images of him sitting on the witness stand looking pensive, then jumping up and asking a question, sitting down and answering. Or how about Susan Smith, in South Carolina, giving tearful interviews that few doubted were the pleas of a heart-broken, distraught mother, begging for her children to be safely released….all the while knowing that they were in her car, on the bottom of a nearby lake. How is this kind of stunning separation of inner aspects of oneself possible? Some would argue that it is a by-product of how inner aspects of a personality just naturally compartmentalize themselves. There are varieties of psycho-therapy that utilize the idea of an inner circle of archetypes, in recognition of this. But, those parts of oneself that are repugnant, vile in the extreme, can be so isolated that it is as if they are occurring in someone else. We reject that which we cannot encompass as being a part of ourselves. We push it away…vigorously; we dis-own those parts, in effect.
In researching my novel, “Above and Beyond”, I read many eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. One book was particularly useful in my attempts to understand the mind-set of Germans who carried out the actual murders. “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, by Daniel Goldhagen, documented—through letters, photos, records and actual accounts--the fact that many of the German soldiers who participated were not, in fact, Nazi SS zealots on a killing binge. They were members of police battalions from places like Hanover and it was simply their assigned duty to spend their days shooting Jews over trenches in the woods and fields of Poland. In most cases, they could even beg-off for the day—without consequences--if it was too much. Few did. The great majority of them were wholly aware of the horrifying nature of what they were doing…and found ways to compartmentalize it so that it became at least tolerable, if not really acceptable. For many, of course, it did become acceptable and was excused as simply “unpleasant, but necessary”.
So, it comes as no surprise then, that we react and adapt to the world around us in a similar fashion. Instead of being able to see our own vileness and accept it—perhaps even lovingly, under ideal conditions—we angrily reject what we see as ‘other’, what cannot possibly be a part of us….but IS. This tendency is mirrored by the arts too, of course. We have already looked at the work of two particular artists who cater to the dark spaces in our psyches. The very fact that we are so offended by the perception of ugliness, vileness and all manner of baseness, gives it greater energy and power. They are counting on that, in fact...literally.
People love the horror genre in the movies and in novels. It has a vast following, and has made horror writers like Stephen King rich beyond imagining. By externalizing what we cannot accept in ourselves we get a thrill. In a manner of speaking, we can visit Hell, and play with the Devil himself, but we don’t have to invite him to come home with us. And, there is a great freedom and release in this process of dipping into the Dark Side without having to really be there. We are so relieved that the monstrous character isn’t really ‘real’, (much less a part of ourselves) and that we can ultimately escape his brutal predations by walking out of the theater after the lights come up, that it actually causes an endorphin release, a ‘rush’ in many people.
And, it seems that the rush is what a growing number of people are after. Certainly, the national news media are convinced that we need a nightly dose of pathos to keep us satisfied. I have never really heard an adequate explanation of why the news is so focused on people acting or suffering badly…the worse it is the better, in fact. Most people I have spoken with about this tell me that they are sick of it, feel almost battered by it….but, ratings don’t lie and it seems they are telling the media that it is the dark news content we really want. When something like the Ft. Hood massacre happens the news media go into hyper-drive to make sure we have absolutely every little piece of information about it that they can gather…or create. It’s a bad-day feeding frenzy. We seem to bounce along from incident to incident...Columbine to 9-11, to Va. Tech...like an old tire bouncing along the bottom of a dirty river. And, those are just the real jolts....lots of bumpity-bumps are between them.
Oddly enough, we live in a society that habitually encourages people to identify with all that is ‘good’ and ‘Godly’ about themselves, while eschewing and firmly rejecting all that is ‘un-Godly’ and ‘evil’. So, why, then, are we so ravenous for graphic depictions—fictional or real—of evil manifest? Doesn’t that make us kind of like the All-American quarterback, who has a small problem with domestic violence? Or the fresh-faced cheerleader with a secret fondness for whips and black leather?
We despise 'Evil', and we can't get enough of it. In college I wrote a paper on Puritan New England’s moral conflicts. In a community where evil was the enemy, and people could be persecuted, even burned at the stake merely for being accused of participating in it….there wasn’t a safe sheep to be found, apparently. They were acting out their repressions like crazy people. They could have had small, tasteful placards for their carriages that said, "New England, where thou art men, and thy sheep art fearful."
I look around the world now, and I see a vast amount of violence and suffering being inflicted in the name of a religion that apparently tells its followers that being peaceful is the true path to righteousness. How’s that work, anyway? If we kill all those who are not following our mandate to be peaceful, well, only the Faithful will remain….and then we’ll have peace. Oooookaaay. I think I must be missing something.
But, what seems clear—at least to me—is that the Dark Side operates in exactly this way. It is loaded with paradoxical conundrums, and because we ‘dis-identify’ with it, we give it full scope to operate, utterly untrammeled by the moral restrictions that we so prominently endorse and espouse. Until we take ownership, in full, we seem to have almost no influence over how it manifests. It runs across the land like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, while we wring our hands and gnash our teeth, crying over our inability to control ‘evil’.
The dualism of western thought has firmly entrenched the idea that God is all Beauty, Love and Light…and then there’s that evil s.o.b. our omnipotent God has no control over—for some strange reason I have never been able to fathom—who is responsible for all the bad stuff. This very concept of evil as being separated and independent of the Kingdom of God, is a perfect metaphor for the human shadow. We turn our backs on the abhorrent aspect of ourselves….and it becomes a fire-breathing dragon that just bites us in the ass.
In his book about his experience in Buchenwald, “Night”, Elie Wiesel relates an incident in which three prisoners are being hung for stealing potatoes from the mess. One is a tow-headed Dutch boy who—because he was so slight of build—is strangling slowly. Of course, all the prisoners have been forced to stand and watch this nightmare unfold. From the ranks behind Wiesel comes a harsh whisper, “You tell me where is God now!”, and without a pause, from someone else comes the reply, “There He is, right in front of you.” I burst into tears when I read this…surprised the hell out of me. Part of me instantly recognized the Truth, and it drove home the point that we are all responsible for our actions. There is no Evil Dark Lord who makes our lives miserable, who spends his time inflicting suffering on us.
We do it to ourselves. And it is not about religion, or whose God you believe in. (Aside: is it really so hard to imagine that there’s only one God, and that He/She/It merely has different names in different traditions?) It is about accepting that we are all simply Human Beings, members of one species that is working out how to live on this blue-green jewel of a planet whirling through the Cosmos.
And, apparently, we still have a very long way to go.
BTW: the image above is a t-shirt design that is being offered on a website that sells tactical gear, i.e. equipment for arming yourself in military or law enforcement way. It is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of espousing hatred as a way of life. For untold numbers of fundamentalists--and not just Muslims, fundamentalists of every ilk, Christians and Jews have taken this route too--it has actually now become a spiritual path. For me, this is vastly more perverse than Jenny Saville's huge paintings of the macabre.