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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Posts from — April 2018

The Shadow

Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parent’s love, put in the bag… Then we do a lot of bag stuffing in high school… We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.
| Robert Bly

The Shadow

Jung’s concept of “the shadow”—those dark elements of the psyche that we push away into the “bag” of the unconscious, that we seek to deny or avoid—ironically sheds a good deal of light on the events that are gathering over Washington D.C. these days like menacing storm clouds. Mr. Trump is, of course, at the epicenter of these developments, a tragic figure whose long history of entitled behavior seems to be catching up with him. Some observing Mr. Trump might think he is nothing but shadow, giving free, unabashed reign to impulses that most of us would feel at least some social obligation to restrain, such as “sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage” (Stephen A. Diamond). Indeed, this explains Mr. Trump’s sudden rise to power in a national election no one believed he could win. The collective consciousness of the nation had had enough of political correctness and elite Democratic thinking that tried to impose its brand of equality and civility by denying the inherent violence of the shadow, a denial personified in Hillary Clinton. The self-important, “when they go low, we go high” and condescending repudiation of the “deplorables” could not withstand the onslaught of Trump’s relentless embodiment of the marginalized shadow. Flouting Democratic values, openly misogynistic and xenophobic, blithely self-promoting and self-serving, racist, boorish, predatory, belligerent—Trump resonated with disenfranchised voters who were fed up with eight years of Democratic idealism and indifference to the dark, politically incorrect, chauvinistic rage that had been incubating within the national psyche. It was this defiant, “gloves off” persona that made Trump seem to them far more honest than Clinton and propelled him into office—a shadow man endorsed by a shadow electorate that was ready to excuse philistine behavior and discount previously central issues of a candidate’s character rather than continue to be sidelined. This is what happens when Dr. Jekyll tries to suppress Mr. Hyde. At some point, Hyde rises up, seizes power, and havoc ensues.

It may well be in our nature to deny the shadow, but as Jung understood, the psyche can never be whole until the shadow is acknowledged and integrated. Certainly we see again and again in philosophical counseling sessions that meaningful change becomes possible only when the client is willing to face the shadow, accept responsibility for his collusion in his suffering, own what had been disowned, and resolve to take a new and better direction. As long as the client is still invested in self-promotion, as long as he is busy defending and explaining and justifying and being right, he remains a victim of his shadow holdings. Moreover, the longer the shadow is disallowed, the stronger and more ruthless it becomes. Eventually, denial of the dark side becomes unsustainable.

The importance of this is hard to overstate. The experiences of the past, emotional woundings and traumatic episodes in particular, collect in the “long bag” of the unconscious like debts accruing interest. Over time, it becomes increasingly harder to keep dragging that bag behind us. The longer we deny the shadow, the greater our burden becomes, until we are no longer present, because everything in the present becomes a screen for the projection of unfinished business, a trigger, a summons to turn to and tend to the disowned and painful truths of who we have been and who we are that have been exiled to the unconscious. This is why it’s crucial that we begin reaching into the bag of the psyche and “take out again” those parts of our nature that we have rejected—the ‘low,” ugly parts, the mean-spirited and violent and selfish and “imperfect” parts—not because we want to be these things, but because they are primal, and denying what is primal is unsustainable and a formula for catastrophe.

In the Jungian view, the darker forces in the psyche that we are loathe to face in ourselves we project onto others, not only individually but collectively. Demonizing other nations, ethnic or political groups, and religions is the result of projecting the disowned and denied parts of ourselves onto others and regarding them as evil. We see this sort of projection going on even in Congress, where winning at all costs has become the new order, and disagreement is construed as disloyalty. Much of Jungian therapy involves the deconstruction of such projections, allowing the client to reclaim and integrate the shadow, to come to terms with Mr. Hyde so that the monster never needs to rise up and wreak havoc.

The shadow cannot simply be unleashed. At the end of the day, denying the light side of our nature is no more sustainable than denying the dark side. Anyone who is so wounded that he cannot admit his failings, who lies to look good, exploits others, sows discord for personal gain or advantage, and otherwise seeks to aggrandize himself sooner or later is pulled down by the undertow of the shadow and drowns in darkness, as it were. Aristotle tells us that character can be rehabilitated but only to a point. Past that, the soul-sickness of akrasia, or lack of self-control that contradicts good judgment, is terminal. It is a theme enacted in Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’s cautionary tale written around 430 B.C. Believing himself to be above the gods (we might say above the truth), Oedipus unwittingly becomes the agent of his own undoing until he is forced to follow his fate to its tragic end. For the Greeks, humility and hubris are expressions of the light and dark aspects of the human soul, respectively. Plato writes about them as black and white horses that must be reigned in by reason, anticipating Jung somewhat by two millennia. We are now living through a compensatory time in our national and global history; the pendulum of the long denied shadow has swung the other way, expressing itself as a return to populism and a rejection of more democratic values, but behind the scenes, the dialectic continues to operate. When the monster, imprisoned overlong, is set loose on the countryside, chaos and destruction follow. Perhaps when the dark truth of the national psyche, its “hour come round at last” as Yeats puts it, has done enough damage, the pendulum will return more to center, and we will have found a way to make peace with the shadow that lives within us all.

April 21, 2018   Comments Off on The Shadow