In Jungian psychology, the Shadow is that place in our subconscious where we cram all of the parts of ourselves that we consider bad, loathsome, or socially unacceptable. In general, the more of our Self that is stuffed away out of sight in the Shadow zone, the more trouble we will have in the quest for a happy and balanced life.
Here’s the problem: any part of yourself that you have disavowed and shut away is then free to operate independently, without having to undergo any sort of committee process involving your reason or your better self. And when you least expect it, it’s likely to commit some dastardly act or say some unspeakable thing using your body and your tongue.
I know some of what’s lurking in my Shadow. There’s a Spoiled Child, a Saboteur, a Victim, a Critic and a Bitch, all mixed up with a lot of pettiness and anger and entitlement. These are the entities I’m aware of, and I know there’s more that are still hiding from me.
They pop up from time to time, trying to run things, and every now and then they manage to find a way past my frontal lobes that makes sense at the time. When the Inner Bitch uses my tongue to say the things that lose me friends and win me enemies, she drags my brain along for the ride. It nods, dumbly, agreeing that this all makes perfect sense and even that I’m being wise to finally say these things. Probably because the Saboteur and the Bitch are co-conspirators and enjoy causing trouble.
There is a cure, but it’s painful – it requires looking into the darkness and acknowledging that these unattractive traits really are a part of you, and taking responsibility for their behavior. When you integrate them as part of the self, they lose their power for ambush tactics and are more under control of the Self.
Embracing the dark side also makes us stronger and more powerful human beings. By accepting our imperfections, we become more compassionate towards the more obvious (to us) weaknesses of our fellow humans. Also, there is often strength in the aspects of ourselves that we find unpleasant. Stuff away your anger and selfishness, for example, and you tend to become a doormat. Lock up the child, and you lose spontaneity and your sense of wonder.
A lot of novelists have worked with this idea. George MacDonald explores the shadow in his strange and surreal adult fairytale Phantastes. The hero, Anodos, is told in no uncertain terms not to open a certain door. Of course he disobeys. A shadow runs out past him through the door, and torments and haunts him thereafter. Stephen King probably deals with this a lot, but the novel that comes to mind is The Dark Half.
But Ursula Le Guin does it best in A Wizard of Earthsea. The hero of this tale, Ged, also calls forth a shadow that causes great evil. But in the end Ged understands that he must face this shadow:
(Warning: spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book. And if you haven’t, you really should.)
“At that Ged lifted up the staff high, and the radiance of it brightened intolerably, burning with so white and great a light that it compelled and harrowed even that ancient darkness. In that light all form of man sloughed off the thing that came towards Ged. It drew together and shrank and blackened, crawling on four short taloned legs upon the sand. But still it came forward, lifting up to him a blind unformed snout without lips or ears or eyes. As they came right together it became utterly black in the white mage-radiance that burned about it, and it heaved itself upright. In silence, man and shadow met face to face, and stopped.
Aloud and clearly, breaking that old silence, Ged spoke the shadow’s name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: “Ged.” And the two voices were one voice.
Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him. Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.”
Ged is healed and empowered in this encounter.
I guess there’s a challenge implicit here. I’m not at all ready to embrace my entire Shadow just yet, but I am thinking that the Bitch and I need to come to an understanding. Anybody else out there ready to fess up to their Dark Side?
Photo: Painting by artist Steven Kenny
It’s meant to be a helpful tool, a memory aid, an organizer. So simple, right? If you have a lot of things to do, you write them down so you don’t forget them. Maybe you put them in your iPhone or on your iPad or some other electronic device. Maybe you have an app. Maybe you write them in a paper type planner or calendar. Or, if you’re super organized like me, your list gets scribbled on a collection of sticky notes and innocent bits of paper that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Over the last few weeks, there has been a development worthy of a full Stephen King treatment. My harmless, helpful lists have morphed into a sentient thing that I now call The List.
This creature now has a life of its own. It evolves constantly, changing and growing. It replicates on its own, so that no matter how many items I cross off with my inadequate pen in an attempt to subdue the beast, it emerges bigger and stronger. In fact, The List has become equated in my mind with The Luggage from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
If for some reason you are unacquainted with The Luggage, you should know that it is made of Sapient Pearwood, has a whole lot of little legs and some very sharp teeth, and that it follows its master everywhere, whether or not he wants to be followed. Here is a sample of its behavior in the book Eric, as it finds its way through thick jungle to reach Rincewind the Wizard, about to be tortured and sacrificed to a god.
“At last a frantic jaguar crashed through the undergrowth and loped down the causeway. The Luggage was a few feet behind it.
It was covered with creepers, leaves and the feathers of various rare jungle fowls, some of which were now even rarer. The jaguar could have avoided it by zigging or zagging to either side, but sheer idiot terror prevented it. It made the mistake of turning its head to see what was behind.
This was the last mistake it ever made.
“You know that box of yours?” said the parrot.
“What about it?” said Rncewind.
“It’s heading this way.”
The priests peered down at the running figure far below. The Luggage had a straightforward way of dealing with things between it and its intended destination: it ignored them.”
Luggage, like a list, is a useful thing. It’s meant to make life more organized and convenient. And it can get out of hand. Like Rincewind, I’m inclined to leave The List behind, having reached the conclusion that the help it provides might be outweighed by its sheer destructive capabilities. Also like Rincewind, I know that it’s not so easy.
The Luggage squatted in the city’s main plaza. The entire priesthood was sitting around it and watching it carefully, in case it did anything amusing or religious.
“Are you going to leave it behind?” said Eric.
“It’s not as simple as that,” said Rincewind. “It generally catches up.”
This is, unfortunately, true about The List. So, although it is very tempting to ignore the beast and spend the day pretending it doesn’t exist, I know that if I do this it will smash through whatever pleasant occupation I’ve interposed between it and me, bigger and gnarlier and much more lethal than it was when I tried to leave it behind.
I will, therefore, carry on, fighting a battle that perhaps cannot be won. Maybe.
Shhhhh. Keep this to yourself. If I just sneak off into a book perhaps it won’t notice.
Why? you ask.
I will tell you why. Because on Linda’s blog on Wednesdays (except when the world as she knows it is blowing up in one way or another, and with Linda trust me – this could happen) there are Humpday Camels! These are no ordinary camels – their purpose in life is to make Wednesday brighter for all of us.
Today, in particular, is the perfect Wednesday to stop by the blog or say hi to Linda on twitter ( @linda_grimes) because she is celebrating the arrival of an entire box of Advanced Reader Copies of her debut novel: In A Fix.
Tell her congrats, cheer her on, get a peek at the cover of the book. And don’t forget to have a look at the camel!
While you are at it, give yourself a hug. Yes, you deserve it. Happy Wednesday!