The Creative Power in Facing Ourselves

Anxiety, Nicholas Roerich
Anxiety, Nicholas Roerich

Dear Reader,

The following is a continuation of my blog series based on my book The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America’s Pivotal Moment. If you are just now picking up on the series, you might start with the Introduction: Welcome to the Challenges of Change.

I hope that it will help you, as writing it has helped me, to find a candle to contribute to your light.

Whether you agree with me or not, I hope my work helps you clarify your own position, both within and to the chaotic times surrounding us. Above all, I hope it helps you create a new vision of the future and a new hope that draws you to commit to it.

Bud Harris
Asheville, North Carolina

The Midnight Hour:
A Jungian Perspective on America’s Pivotal Moment

Chapter 4: The Creative Power in Facing Ourselves

If I admit with Richard Wright in that poem “Between the World and Me” that evil goes into me as does the good, then I’m obliged to study myself, to center myself and make a choice. For I must know that the battles I wage are within myself. The wars I fight are in my mind. They are struggles to prevent the negative from overtaking the positive, and to prevent the good from eradicating all the negative and rendering me into an apathetic, useless organism, which has no struggle, no dynamic, and no life. —Maya AngelouThe shock of the election and the traumatic stress-inducing political chaos that has followed it has left me aware that a much larger portion of my fellow citizens than I knew are strangers to me. Thinking about this realization and the darkness around this election brought to mind a frightening story I read in my childhood.

Do you remember the story by Robert Lewis Stevenson about a fatal split in a man’s personality titled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Though I didn’t realize it at the time, this book was telling me exactly how I could be creating my life in a “bubble” by trying to build a good and thriving life by conventional standards and at the same time create a dark shadow—my inner deplorables. While Dr. Jekyll was devoting himself to living a life he believed was admirable, useful, and safe, he was denying and repressing significant aspects of himself in order to do so. In fact, we all are indoctrinated to think, feel, and behave in certain ways to fit in, feel safe, and attempt to thrive within our families and social groups.

Even in the best of circumstances, our norms are made up in general of our social group values, our parents’ biases, and characteristics that are often ordinary and mundane. We can imagine Dr. Jekyll trying to have a positive attitude and be indifferent when he was ignored or diminished by people close to him. To stay positive and productive he probably had to repress his emotions of hate and rage along with his natural fierceness and capacity for aggression. To maintain his beneficial image of himself and his self-respect he probably became more controlled and rigid than he realized while appearing to be kind. Shaping himself in these ways would also limit his capacity to act in his own self-interest as well as to be creative, spontaneous, forceful, and even genuinely and actively caring for other people beyond his everyday encounters with them. Damn it all! I know all too well exactly what he did, and the cloud of illusions and denial he lived in.

As Dr. Jekyll’s repressed characteristics began to coalesce and ferment under pressure over time, they began to make up what we call his dark shadow. Our shadow, like Dr. Jekyll’s, becomes an alienated part of our personality, outside of our awareness, because we have shaped ourselves and been shaped by our environment to be indifferent to many of our strongest emotions, deepest needs, fiercest desires, and best potentials. Splitting ourselves this way curtails our ability to live with heart.

As Dr. Jekyll’s repressed characteristics and alienated potentials accumulated, fermented, and turned destructive in his unconscious, they began to combine. When they progressed to a critical mass, they erupted and manifested themselves in the form of Mr. Hyde. When the pressure became too much, Mr. Hyde took over Dr. Jekyll’s personality and behavior. He didn’t know or care about being nice, fair, or politically correct. His awful acts are what I as a Jungian would call the eruption of the dark shadow, the uprising of one’s inner deplorables. Everything that made up Mr. Hyde would threaten Dr. Jekyll’s carefully constructed self-image. In using the term self-image I am not simply speaking of his persona—his public face that made him look successful, caring, and accomplished—I am speaking of the deeper self-image that gave him feelings of self-worth and made him think he was happy and satisfied in his life.

Dr. Jekyll, like most of us, probably came to admire in himself what was admired, respected, and valued by the people around him while he was growing up. In the same way, we create some kind of bubble of characteristics we value and take for granted. Our social group does the same thing, and as a social group we create a collective shadow as well.

Grounds for Hope

Paradoxically, as I mentioned, some of our best potentials have frequently been blocked and shoved into our shadows. We call these aspects of our shadow our golden shadow. Some of our most important capacities for being courageous, creative, noble, outstanding, loving, and compassionate have gotten locked away in the unconscious compartments of our golden shadow. Even our most actively taught cultural ideals of achievement, success, productivity, and leadership are structured into social norms and not into individual depths, complexities, authenticities, and true higher callings.

For example, to be truly creative is to include the whole—the complexity and the truth of who we are. If we are open to change, if we realize that change is going to happen whether we like it or not, and if we understand that to some extent it is always a plunge into the unknown, our engagement will bring us to a better outcome. We soon learn that our tears and our rage can give us the energy to break out of the prison of our old models for living—the bondage of our old selves—and can activate and direct us toward other life-enhancing activities. They can give us the strength and courage to look a life change in the face and say, “Bring it on!”

William Blake, the passionate painter, poet, and visionary, summed up the interaction between the light and the dark symbolically by saying we should go to heaven for form and to hell for energy and then marry the two. We can use the emotional power (the power Dr. Jekyll repressed) from our rage, tears, and frustrations in our dark shadow to bring the potentials in our golden shadow to life. And they too will challenge our cultural norms and conventional wisdom.

In the next few chapters I will give you some examples of how I, and our society, have created rage, despair, hopelessness, and attitudes of malignant aggression and how this energy should be moving us to change and realize potentials we have been indifferent to. This confrontation can lead to healing the divides within ourselves and within our culture. This confrontation can also lead us to visions of unity, the ability to direct our lives to vistas larger than ourselves, and to a new nobility of the spirit. The world ends in fire and ice in Norse mythology. Confronting ourselves, looking into the mirror of truth and breaking through the boundaries of our conventions and fears, is our journey into the ice and fire of new beginnings.

For a long time, I wondered why Mr. Hyde as Dr. Jekyll’s shadow became so thoroughly evil and destructive. Slowly, through my life experiences, I have come to see that this is what alienation and dehumanization does to us, to anyone. Alienation on many levels causes rage and the urge—or the compulsion—to destroy life, social structures, and even one’s self. Alienated individuals become trolls on the internet, and if they are cut off enough from themselves and society, they can become mass murderers and serial rapists. When alienated people come together, they become militia groups, cults, and terrorists. Alienated citizens can vote against their own self-interest out of rage and despair.

On a personal level, when we become alienated from our inner selves, our emotions, and our potentials that hold the power of our stagnated and unlived lives can drain our energy and leave us depressed, anxious, and vulnerable to illnesses and compulsive behaviors that can wreck our existence. The moment our shadow finally explodes is a dangerous one. But this moment can become the call to a whole new phase of life if we can learn to recognize and use the energy that is boiling up. This moment of potential healing and growth was lost to Dr. Jekyll due to his refusal to become self-aware, and it destroyed him. Throughout and since this election, we have experienced the eruption of the dark-shadow side of our social character. This moment too can be lost, can become more destructive if we refuse to search for the new awareness and understanding that it is demanding.

As I recognize, face, and integrate my capacities for rage, fierceness, aggression, or even a deep capacity to love—my own shadow qualities—I become stronger in knowing who I am. I have more resilience in dealing with life and more receptivity to love. (In reality, no matter what we think, very few of us are really receptive to love, especially self-love and self-compassion.) In addition, I gain the strength to be more vulnerable in showing passion and compassion and to take other personal risks. I also develop more capacity for experiencing a wide range of emotions and understanding what they are telling me about how I am living. The more of my shadow I can become aware of and integrate, the more vitality I will end up with, the more realistic my outlook on life will be, and my ability to understand others will grow in depth and breadth.

Confronting our shadows, as Dr. Jung articulates in his writings, is the most fundamental step in gaining any kind of spiritual or psychological maturity. To think this step can be avoided is to live in a state of illusion and denial. Neither education, will- power, enlightenment, positive thinking, endless counseling, prosperity, or simply belief-oriented religions can save us from needing to have the courage and insight to confront our shadows. Unfortunately, our culture gives us an implicit message that we should be active and in control of our lives. It also implies that being thoughtful and personally reflective is a waste of time. But we have to go through the ice and fire of seeking to genuinely know ourselves in order to heal the threats and bruises that cause our repressions in order to mine the gold within us to arrive at a fully satisfying life. This same principle holds true on a societal level. Confronting the shadow of our national character needs to become an ongoing event.

Looking in the Mirror

For many of us, living in today’s bubble of denial and illusion means being achievement-oriented, materially successful, well-fed and clothed, as safe as possible, and having lives that are moderately meaningful. There is also an undertow of fear in affluent people, especially those who are past midlife. Much of that fear is media-driven and causes us to fear people who are not like us, to fear losing our money and security, and to fear having things we value taken away from us. Deep inside of us we know, whether we can admit it to ourselves or not, that seismic shifts are needed in our society. We are afraid of what they may bring. But we need to remind ourselves that directly facing our problems, defining them, and seeking to understand their complexity is the first step in fostering a creative and beneficial outcome.

Thankfully our founding fathers and forebears were able to face their fears and reach beyond them to search for new horizons.  However imperfect they were personally, they began the quest to create a society in which every citizen would be considered sacred.

From our bubble, our illusions of the “good life,” our concerns for veterans, street people, poor mothers, malnourished children, the unemployed, the addicted, the mentally ill, and the sick have been given lip service and inadequate commitment. Too often we satisfy ourselves with giving a few dollars and small amounts of time to socially correct causes. Too easily we fall into the trap of denying the problems, blaming the victims or treating the symptoms and alleviating small amounts of pain. And, as much as I admire workers in those fields—as I once was—we, as a society, are not penetrating into the heart of darkness, the heart of our society’s pain. Generally, too many of us leave it up to the government to help these groups, while too many of us in the top 20 percent of wage earners keep up a drumbeat of complaint about how ineffective the government is in administering these programs and how much they cost.

It is important to note that when Dr. Jekyll had worn out his specialized approach to the good life that had served him well up to this point, his vitality was usurped by his dark shadow—his sinister, repressed, violent side. Mr. Hyde represents the result of the parts of himself that Dr. Jekyll had been too nice and too focused on in his specialized approach to life (staying in his illusions of being a good person) to have the courage to try to understand the marginalized aspects of himself. We in the top 20 or 30 percent economically in our society have worn out our specialized approaches to living a genuinely prosperous life. It follows that some of the institutions supporting these approaches are also worn out. History has proven to us that social stagnation and accumulated frustration are far more dangerous than facing our fears and beginning the process of reimagining how we are structuring our present and future.

I can remember a lot about the path that took us up to 2016. I was there, and I saw that as the 1970s evolved into the 1980s, we as a country became more interested in productivity, achievement, materialism, enviable vacations, and appearing affluent. “Greed is good,” and the creation of the illusion that it was good for all of us, was a major theme in the 1987 movie Wall Street. During the 1980s and 1990s, those of us in the bubble became more encapsulated in the focus on our personal well-being. Gradually we seemed to become indifferent to the increasing number of our fellow citizens who were becoming more insecure and even desperate, who were beginning to become angry and alienated. For too many of us it was too easy to label them “deplorables.”

We must remember that the founding fathers of our country who wrote of the pursuit of happiness in our Declaration of Independence were products of the Enlightenment. They considered the pursuit of happiness as the enlargement of one’s being through the development of the life of the mind and spirit.

Due in a large part to our national traumas during the 1960s and early 1970s, we seem to have lost faith in our government and our ability as citizens to affect it. We lost the personal commitment and personal obligation to be informed that are needed to ensure our government is of the people, by the people, and for the people. Such a government requires our full, informed engagement as citizens. Our indifference and frustration caused us to become subjects of the power-seeking ruling group and their agenda rather than free, responsible citizens. Frustrated subjects tend to revolt, while citizens act to create change.

I want to mention that here I am using the term deplorables as it was first used by the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to describe the loud, angry, aggressive supporters of the other candidate, Donald Trump, in his rallies. She made the mistake of dehumanizing this group rather than seeking to understand their anger. This act cast them into the shadow of our national character and cut many of the rest of us off in our “respectable” bubbles. When we dehumanize a group, the question is not what side of politics we are on, but what side of humanity are we on. In the 2016 election both major parties spent plenty of time dehumanizing each other.

Our increasingly encapsulated approach to being politically involved has left the humanity, the hopes, and the dreams of many of our fellow citizens diminished and even demolished while we in our bubbles all too often project the cause of our societal problems onto these same people. The more these groups of people aren’t listened to, the more they become part of our societal dark shadow. Just as with our personal dark-shadow characteristics, the more they become alienated from the mainstream in our society, the more bitter their anger and desperation becomes. As the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde approaches its climax, Dr. Jekyll cries out, “My devil has been long caged, he came out roaring.” So has our collective shadow in the last few years. As Dr. Jung has noted, a person’s feeling of weakness and non-existence eventually brings on the eruption of previously unknown desires for power.

When our societal shadow erupts (whether in riots, politics, mass murders, or exposed criminal activities in high places), we experience a time of fire and ice: Ragnorak—the Twilight of the Gods—symbolizing the end of some of the old dominant values and serious perspectives on how life should be lived that we have taken for granted. These are times that can scare us into a fearful retreat into an ultraconservative stance that is defensive, aggressive, spiritless, and heartless—a retreat out of our capacity to live with heart. Then hatred and ideologies seem to become zones of safety and comfort for those of us who choose these paths. The real call of destiny and of human nature that such times represent is a call to open ourselves to re-imagining who we are as a people, who we can become, and how we can live into a new unified national identity that has learned from what we have previously denied, repressed, and been indifferent to. This approach can help us become “stronger in our broken places,” broader in our capacities to be human, and filled with new vitality.

When we think about our societal shadow, we need to remember that one of our great Western religions and wisdom traditions points out that before we judge someone else, we should examine ourselves (New Testament, Matthew 7:3-5 NIV). “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” In other words, before we judge someone or some situation we should look into our own shadow.

Knowing our own shadow is the prerequisite for perceiving our own reality and authenticity and is the beginning of being able to know the shadows of others and of our society. Dr. Jung says in his book The Undiscovered Self that a society is made up of individuals and that all real social change begins in the individual, especially when we are courageous enough to face our own shadow. Dr. Jung goes on to add that we in the Western world are beyond the point in history where a political figure or party can save us. We—you and I, individually—must take responsibility for our collective lives. Hoping to be saved by a candidate or party is stepping onto the path toward tyranny.

Because each one of us contributes to the structure of our collective personality and its shadow, we first must examine and understand our own illusions about life and how to live well. These illusions have been formed as we have grown up and developed.  Our repressed and ignored shadows, our deplorables, must also be acknowledged in order to clearly understand what is going on in our collective personality.  Far too many of our collective deplorables have been conditioned into lives of hopelessness, fear, anger, and mindsets—neural pathways of self-defeating aggressiveness, defensiveness, despair, withdrawal, and bitterness—while living in a world that is economically and politically indifferent to them. Understanding them begins with understanding ourselves. So, as I look at our political chaos more closely, I am going to start with facing myself.

The road to understanding myself and getting a true perspective on reality has required a difficult deprogramming of my indoctrination into thinking that I should have a positive attitude, appear happy, not burden others with my feelings, and be able to control and direct my life. It has taken courage to face these necessary changes in myself, and so does the humbling effort to continue to confront my shadow. It took courage to face the very discomforting fact that I have been wrong or negligent about a number of things rather than face the complex demands of being an active, responsible citizen. Over the years I have betrayed some of my deepest feelings, values, and potentials. It is also humbling that after eight decades of living I need to start over again  to learn who I really am. If we can learn how to re-imagine ourselves based on the deeper truths of who we are, we will have a better foundation for re-imagining many areas in our government. In this way, we will be able to bring continuous renewal and vitality into our lives and culture.

Next Chapter…

The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America's Current Pivotal Moment The above is Chapter 4 of my book The Midnight Hour: A Jungian Perspective on America’s Current Pivotal Moment.

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One Response to “The Creative Power in Facing Ourselves”

  1. Dodie Brady

    Thank you for your wisdom. I admire you. I attended some of your lectures at the Jung Society in Washington, DC. I loved this chapter and appreciate you making this available.

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