Archive for September 2014
“the ego seldom really knows enough to know that it does not know enough.” (Hollis, Why Good People Do Bad Things, p. 12)
Obviously, I am continuing on with my reading of Hollis’ book. The book talks about shadow, ego and the unconscious. I know that I have likely explained this elsewhere in the archives of this blog site, but I feel a need to visit these terms once again. Ego is the simplest of these words to describe. Ego is the thinking aspect of ourselves, the part of us we “know” in real terms. Though we often question ourselves and our identity, we do have a sense of self that in adulthood, is fuller that the others around us can ever know. What others around us know is typically what we let them know about ourselves.
Let me begin with the Jo-Hari Window, a simple diagram that looks at the self in a two-dimensional grid:
We obviously, no matter how hard we work or try can ever completely know ourselves. The ego I described above is comprised of our public or “open” self, as well as our private or “hidden” self. When people get close to us, they get to notice things about us that we are unaware of. More often than not, these aspects are usually minor in nature. However, those who are closest to us get exposed to more of our “blind” self and could tell us (and often enough do) about what they experience about us, usually to our embarrassment.
We can with a lot of effort become more aware, more conscious of ourselves. We may even be willing to acknowledge that even what we think we know, is somehow suspect because of various unidentified factors that slip under our control to affect our thoughts, moods and actions. What we know is simply that, what we know – ego knowledge. It is that area that is “unknown” that is the source of most of our problems that we typically blame on others. That unknown is called the unconscious. The diagram to the left is misleading as it suggests that the unconscious is relatively small and perhaps can be made smaller if we simply expose more of our “hidden self” to others who would in turn clue us in to those things about ourselves for which we are “blind.”
I am sure, that like everyone I know, there are things you regret saying and regret doing. More often than not, you can’t even explain why you might have said or done these things to people you profess to love. Often when confronted by those we love about what we have said or done, we deny the things they tell us about what we have done or said while honestly believing that we are truly innocent of what we have been accused of saying or doing. When we can’t escape the fact that we have indeed said or done something about which we were unaware of, we typically respond with, “What made me say that?” or if it radically contradicts what we know about ourselves, the response often becomes, “Why did you make me say that?” as we blame others for our unconscious actions and speech. I could go on and on with examples, but there is enough to give one the idea that perhaps we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do. We learn as we get older that our truths and certainties of our younger years are now fuzzy at best. It seems the more we learn, the less we “know.”
This unconscious aspect of ourselves permeates all of our lives, all of our relationships, our beliefs, our avoidances, our embracings including politics and religion. As soon as we think we “know;” as soon as we are convinced of our truths; we become trapped or locked in a limited awareness. It is as though we build a wall around ourselves wit which we find protection from antagonists. What has really happened is that we have retreated into yet another fundamentalist belief whether it is the belief that nudity is immoral, that Islamic people are terrorists, that coloured people are inferior, that only our brand of religion is valid, or that poor people are lazy and deserve to be poor. Any idea that reduces the world to black and white; us versus them; good guys and bad guys with God on our side – all of these are examples of being caught up in a blend of collective and personal unconscious – or Shadow.
So who are the bad guys and where do we find them? Well, as Pogo explained, “We have met the enemy and he is us. All that we project on others, are aspects of self we have denied or aspects we have never even known. I have often had difficulty following orders and found myself at odds with work superiors and believed that they were the problem. I unwittingly projected my authority complex on them thus robbing them of being seen and experienced as complex people who were more than their roles at work. I didn’t know that inadvertently I had become the problem.
In today’s world we are beset with more darkness than we can cope with. Beheadings, terrorism, rich plundering the poor, religion versus religion, profit versus the environment, liberal versus conservative, and racial strife that has erupted in militarization of police forces which in turn fosters a shoot first and question later response as the police see themselves in a war zone where every shadow becomes the enemy – there are too many examples of collective shadow at work. So what can we do about it? Well, the only real choice we have to do the hard and dirty work of uncovering, exposing as much of our own shadow as we can. As we become more “self” aware, we take back a little at a time, our projections and own them. Along the way we may become more compassionate with ourselves and in turn with those around us including those who we perceive as giving us the most difficulty. It’s our only hope.
The Shadow is not black or white either. But that is a topic for another day.
“[What] we do not know about ourselves persists and subtly infiltrates our values and choices . . . one of the sure signs of our defense against our shadow is our ready rationalizations that surface to justify our position on any subject.” pp 10-11
As I hear these words, I hear echoes of fundamentalist thinking I have heard in the voices of others, and to be honest, in myself. Though I have long ago learned that truth is relative, and by that I mean in terms of how each of us sense the world and interpret what we sense. Any police officer will tell you that given any number of witnesses, there will be as many versions of what had happened at a witnessed scene as there are witnesses. And each of those witnesses, will believe firmly their version which they would take with them to any trial where they would swear an oath. Why? Why so many versions of reality? Shouldn’t there be a simple, uncomplicated version? Well, regardless, it is what it is as we all are unique with unique histories, abilities, sensory organs and psychological filters.
I have tried more times than can be counted to have discussions on any number of topics, discussions that didn’t require depth. Typically I am confounded by the apparent inability of others to actually hear and understand what I have said. What happened while I was talking was the activation of some trigger with the listener who then begins to deliver his or her truth. It is as though there is a knee-jerk response that has as its motivation a rationalisation of an opinion that is held tightly as a truth.
I am guilty as much as anyone else of justifying my opinion as a truth. “There should be a law!” often escapes my mouth when I react to a situation involving another person who is somehow offending me. I don’t realise at the time that the other really isn’t offending me at all but simply living their own version of truth and reality. I create the sense of being offended within myself and it is expressed unconsciously as a projection of that which I deny about the shadows within myself. Do I dare, do you dare to confront all those things we do or say for which we justify as being the fault of others? If we are ever to become more conscious or ourselves, more responsible as humans, the answer is “Yes!”
“The complexity of the universe, and the complexity of our own souls, is so immense that the fantasy of truly knowing ourselves is like standing on the mountain at dusk and believing that we are encompassing all the stars that wheel in their sidereal orbits through the limitless spaces above us. . . . So, the ego seldom really knows enough to know that it does not know much.” pp 11-12
There is an old saying that many of us have learned, “the more we learn, it seems the less we know.” Applies to the word written here by James Hollis. As parents we have seen our children, as teenagers, grow to become “know-it-alls” who think parents are not all that intelligent. Yet somehow when our children become young adults they wonder how fast their parents have been learning. It seems funny for us as we see this development. It is part of our developmental cycle to be in the stage of being certain, or “know-it-alls.”
As adults, it seems that it becomes less funny when we are confronted by other adults who are self-proclaimed experts who have an answer for every question, even the questions we haven’t asked. Yet, we are not much different as we hold onto certainties of who we are thinking that what you see is all there is. When confronted by others about our moods, attitudes, biases, fundamentalism, and even our actions; we often regard these others with surprise as we are adamant that we are anything but what they claim. We know that we are in control and reasonable people. If we have an opinion, we are more than justified because of the evidence others present.
We can’t see or admit our biases, we are blissfully unaware that we have projected our stuff onto others, blaming them for what we have yet to know about what is going on within our own psyche. If we could just come to understand that anything for which we have a strong, even unmoveable opinion, is indicative of something beneath ego consciousness being activated. If we are lucky enough, maybe we will get to the point of realising that the more we learn about our “self,” the more we will realise remains to be learned.
Now, to continue with looking at James Hollis’ book and how it has resonated with me.
“The “personal Shadow” is unique to each of us, although we may share many features with others around us. The “collective Shadow” is the darker drift of the culture, the unacknowledged, often rationalized, interactions of time, place, and our tribal practices. Each of us carries a personal Shadow, and each of us participates in varying proportion in a collective Shadow.” p. 10
It’s interesting to me how the collective Shadow is painted darker than the personal Shadow. I would have thought that light the personal Shadow, the collective Shadow would also contain the unlived potential that we would characterise as perhaps the opposite of evil. In communities it is easy to see how the collective comes together for positive outcomes such as when a community rallies around an individual or family that is in need. But then again, mob mentality is all about darkness and the display of behaviour that would otherwise rarely put in an appearance. With mob mentality we revert to brutality and action without reason, following along in the hunt energised so to speak by the smell of blood. Somehow, the collective has a particular energy to pull in anyone who doesn’t remain alert, those who question and demand answers that can be understood by their own level of consciousness.
But what about the collective unconscious of small groups? I think of staff rooms and how they can become toxic environments where otherwise good people become nasty and surly and perpetually negative within the staff room. Yet, once they are out of the work environment, they revert back to the pleasant and good people of the community.
When we turn to larger groups such as the military, the dark shadow is magnified. How else could we ever explain why good young men willingly shoot unarmed people including children, or drop bombs knowing that the results often demolish schools, homes and hospitals? Somehow, the mindset of fighting against an opposing darkness allows us to visit horror and sometimes death on other ordinary communities. For make no mistake about it, all those villages in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, any other place in the past or conflict place of the future, are filled with mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, the mentally or physically helpless, and ordinary good people. Yes, out of those villages and towns emerge forces that are bent on destruction of their enemies – on both sides of any conflict.
When the bodies are brought back home, heroes every one, our beliefs about the others are reinforced. They are the enemy, forces of darkness. And, our anger is increased. We have no thought that we have journeyed into another country carrying weapons, uninvited. We have threatened with violence, followed through those threats with death and destruction fighting the beliefs of dark evil that we have nursed within us. Month after month, year after year we follow our crusade to bring freedom from evil to those we have convinced ourselves need us to show them the way, even if we have to kill so many of them in the process. We have become the foreign devils, the dark shadow of strangers who come to destroy homes, communities and families. Our inner darkness is projected upon the other and there seems to be no way of bringing this to a good end. It does nothing to lay blame or to ask who fired the first shot, for that first shot was a stone or spear thrown by ancestors too many thousands of years ago before we thought to chronicle our collective insanity.
“The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the Shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real.” C. G. Jung, CW 9ii, para. 14
“What is not made conscious will continue to haunt our lives – and the world. In our short transit on this earth, there is more within each of us than we can ever make conscious and assimilate And yet our quality of life is a direct function of the level of awareness we bring to our daily choices.” Hollis, p. 5
It took a long time for me to eventually realise that I had a shadow that was actively making my life miserable. I blamed all the things that haunted my life on my parents and the abuse they unwittingly visited upon me and my siblings. There was more than enough abuse to last several lifetimes of hauntings and I believed that I didn’t have to look any further than to my childhood and youth. I worked with myself using self-psychology, self-analysis only to find that things weren’t getting all that much better. So I got professional counselling help. However, it seemed that with even more help, I was still finding myself haunted more than ever.
Turning in desperation to a Jungian analyst, things began to improve. It wasn’t so much that the analyst did some magic, rather it was the analyst’s ability to tap into my intellectual understandings of psychology and bring them home to my heart. I had learned so much theory, but it had remained lodged in my ego which had built defenses against my own inner world. Knowing facts does not equate with consciousness. It was a shift into art that finally broke down my defenses and allowed me to see a reflection of my own shadow. At that point, I had little choice in what I had to do. It was my own shadow that was haunting me. It then became my moral duty to become more aware of that shadow and thus not be a victim of that shadow. By moral duty, I don’t mean moral as in church, law or social conventions. I mean it in terms of personal honesty and avoiding dumping my shadow onto others in my family, in my community or even upon those who are strangers, different from me.
“Expressed in its most functional way, the Shadow is composed of all those aspects of ourselves that have a tendency to make us uncomfortable with ourselves. The shadow is not just what is unconscious, it is what discomforts the sense of self we wish to have. It is not synonymous with evil, thought it may contain elements that the ego or culture considers evil.” p. 9
This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, that my shadow wasn’t just my personal unconscious. It also contains some of my ego self, the self I know, those things I don’t like about myself. I don’t know anyone who is fully content and satisfied with who they are. Everyone wants to be a better person in some manner though many would never admit it to others. As I listen to other people I often am presented with the fact that some of these people have a wonderful life with great kids who are the best at everything they do including being at the top of their respective classes. I get to hear how their lives are exemplary with them being pillars of their communities and extremely well respected and liked. Yet, for all of their perfection and perfect lives, they are miserable people who need reassuring, constant reassurance from others about these carefully constructed beliefs. They live outwardly with certainty about who they are and with pride about who they are. Yet, inwardly certainty is missing.
When the cracks appear in out carefully crafted bubbles of identity, we all engage in diversionary tactics so that others don’t see the cracks. We hope that we can somehow cover up the cracks so that life once again becomes the way we want it to be.
I will be back with more thoughts on James Hollis’ book.
I am reading James Hollis’ book, Why Good People Do Bad Things. I had begun reading this book at least a year ago and then set it aside for some reason or other that I don’t remember. Likely, it made me uncomfortable. This past week I picked up the book again and continued reading from where I left off – yes, I left a book marker in the book. So much of the book all of a sudden became important for me, so I turned back to the beginning to see what had originally caught me eye. There, before the book begins with its introduction, on a page by itself was this quote from Carl Gustav Jung:
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” [C. G. Jung, CW 13 para. 335; cited in Hollis, Why Good People Do Bad Things.]
As I understand C.G. Jung, the typical response to any darkness is some idea that serves as a vision (a light) with which a society then throws its energy and allegiance in hopes of escaping the darkness. However, history is filled with how, more often than not, that allegiance leads to a collective neurosis that allows the collective to do evil. It is a rare group of individuals to own their own darkness and thus avoid unthinkable acts of darkness.
Of course, Jung is referring here to individuals but one has to remember that all groups, all organisations are made up of individuals and the fact that no group can surpass the individuals within it. That said, groups, like individuals have a Shadow. No group has a collective consciousness for there isn’t a group that is a psychic entity like individual humans. As individuals, myself included, there is no love for having our errors pointed out to us, especially those bits of darkness in us for which we are unconscious. Rather, there is a defensive response as though one has been attacked regardless of the intention behind the critique. I know that this is how I respond when the critique cuts too deep. I deny the critique and then attack in response so as to defend myself. Of course, I lose in the process, a chance to become more conscious as a human. My best hope is that afterward I look at my own responses to the critique and that I have the courage to stare at the exposed shadow and own it, even if I am hesitant to admit it to others.
“How is it that there can be so many discrepancies between our professed values, our presumptive virtues, and our many embarrassing, often destructive behaviors?” [Hollis, p. 2]
“Who am I?” is often answered with a good number of value statements and beliefs about how we are with others. I often talk of myself as a kind, gentle and good person. I tell any and every one that I am a good listener and a dependable and capable person. For so long, I had this unspoken belief that I was better than most others in terms of my goodness. I wore my attitude of being a knight in shining armor on my sleeve with pride, believing I was holier than most everyone who went to church. In order to make sense of how all this goodness was rewarded with so much confusion, confrontation and worthlessness just in my life just didn’t make sense. I saw myself as an almost saintly victim of a dark and basically evil world. Thankfully, I fell off my pedestal hard enough to bang my head hard against reality to wake me up to the truth of who I was, just another ordinary human. Hubris was recognised for what it was, pure egocentrism and narcissism.
For the most part, I was a good person and that was recognised by most people around me. But, I found myself not always being good. I recall too many times during my life when I was mean and vengeful. At those times I always found reasons to forgive myself for being cruel and hurtful, usually by blaming the victim(s) of my bad behavior for eliciting that bad behavior. An example that comes to mind comes from my career as a teacher. I recall one class that, for a number of reasons, always seemed to trigger a meanness within me. It didn’t take long for me to enact group punishment rather than ask myself why I was angered, or to ask what exactly had happened. As a result, students who were used to me as a kind, generous, caring and patient teacher would be attacked and punished with unreasonable demands for unnecessary work. The students were left wondering what it was they said or did to bring out this anger, believing that the fault lay with them. They began to believe that they were a bad class.
I challenge you to walk this path of beginning to wake up and become conscious of your own Shadow.