Becoming Conscious Of One’s Personal Shadow
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.