Tolerating the Shadow Side
Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and regular contributor to radio and
magazines in Australia. Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love came out of a
series of radio discussions on what she called 'the humane virtues'. At a
time of 'grim uncertainty' in her life, (having survived cancer and about
to face a harrowing court case) she wanted to explore the 'most urgent
questions about how to live, how to love, how to endure and relieve
suffering'. She found herself returning repeatedly to the unifying
principles of love, thousands of years old. Her discussions were based on
'six of the greatest qualities humankind has ever named': courage,
fidelity, restraint, generosity, tolerance and forgiveness. Following is
an extract from the chapter on tolerance, in which Dowrick discovers how
much we can learn from daring to confront our shadow sides.
Tolerance is not a neat and tidy virtue. In its bonsai forms it certainly
allows people to be nice, compliant, patronising, pleasant, hypocritical, blind, unreal
and half-alive. But where it lives and breathes, sweats and weeps, grows
and soars, it is anything but nice. It is confronting, flexible, blatant,
humorous, sometimes harsh, always encompassing, truthful, demanding-and
Tolerance lives-or dies-first in our own minds. Forget, for just a moment,
thoughts about others that lead to the establishment of attitudes, beliefs,
convictions, and sometimes to peace or war. Stay with the rivalries, the
contradictions, the perplexities, paradoxes, ambiguities, elisions,
obsessions, certainties and ignorances that exist within your own thought
Tolerating this untidy, writhing heap is not easy. It demands at least a
partial awareness that you are not the predictable unity you might like to
imagine. You may not be wholly good, kind and reasonable. Tolerance
demands that you face that. It demands that you can bear your own interior
chaos and clashes; that you are willing to be utterly surprised not by
others only, but by yourself; that you can sometimes live with prolonged
uncertainty about who you are, what your life means, where you are heading;
that you can come to understand times of bleakness as well as joy; that you
can accept in the spaciousness of your own mind thoughts and their
accompanying feelings that you might well prefer to assign somewhere far
What this adds up to is that you are able-as your life progresses, and you
learn from it-to take yourself on in your entirety, and not just in the
bits that fit with others' ideas of you, or your regularly polished
illusions about yourself.
'Taking yourself on' makes it hard for you to disown your actions that
cause others pain or harm. It makes it hard for you to see yourself as
separate from other people, and markedly better or worse than they are. It
makes it impossible to rest on any certainties, not least those that
accompany the labelling we give ourselves-and allow others to give us-when
we believe we are in the process of creating a life.
Tolerance-especially for what is raw and untried, confronting and
unfamiliar-means taking ourselves or allowing ourselves to be taken to the
outer limits of our potentials, even if this means risking encountering the
perils of ecstasy or hell. And not taking ourselves in a single direction
only. Facing what we may prefer to ignore, repress or disown may feel
dangerous, even crazy. Contemporary culture discourages us from venturing
into these tricky realms. We are supposed to consume extreme experiences,
but not risk living them. Risking them might turn us into nations of
artists, warriors for peace, internationalists, nature lovers, protectors
of children and old people, mystics, storytellers, perpetual students
hungry to know more, employees who want our work to add up to something.
Nothing in our education or public culture encourages or prepares us to
live like that. Too many of our experiences have become synthetic: other
people's lives and fantasies mediated to us through movies or television.
Yet authentic experiences remain always close at hand. They are not
available for rich people only, or for special people only.
Tolerance, especially when it slides into apathy, has a fearsome shadow
side. But that does not make it any the less valuable or powerful. It is
a law of nature that the brighter a light is, the darker its shadow. That
is true for this virtue as we see it practised (and defiled) socially, and
as we experience it within ourselves.
It may be, however, that it is only when we are up against the limits of
what we believe we cannot bear, or could never bear, that the sleeping
tolerance within us can come awake and, as it does so, waken love and
wisdom. This is certainly my own experience. Only through tolerating what
had to be faced, as well as the range of feelings that erupted around that,
could I come slowly and erratically to a point of recognition of my own
Looking back at the unendurable that I have, inch by inch, endured, I can
see how tolerance has emerged, inch by inch: tolerance for the situation I
was in; for the uncertainty of its outcome; for my own insufficiencies in
dealing with it as well as I might have wished. I could have discovered
nothing about that experience in prospect, and even looking back I feel
extremely tempted to say, 'I could never do that again'. Yet I am a
stronger person because I did see those situations through; because,
despite my feelings of dismay and helplessness, I did tolerate them, endure
them, and survived.
What's more, when I look around at the people I know, and think about the
many, many people whose lives have met mine through their books, I know
that psychic, emotional and spiritual survival is no small thing. It may
even be that conscious survival-surviving and reflection upon it-is our
greatest source of wisdom.
Nancy Mairs and her husband, George, were foster parents in the late 1970s
to an adolescent who had been dumped, betrayed, ignored, pushed around, and
who eventually landed in their home. A decade later, writing not only
about the experience of fostering this young man, but about her experience
of life, Nancy said: 'People have asked me often whether I regret taking
Ron in, whether I'd do so again if I had to do it over. Hard questions to
face, the answers risky to the ways I like to think of myself.
'Because I did regret taking him in, many times. I lack the largeness of
spirit that enables someone like George to transcend daily inconveniences,
lapses in behaviour, even alien values, and to cherish a person without
condition. I often judged Ron harshly, by standards inappropriate to his
peculiar situation; I was often grudging of approval and affection; I made
him work too hard for the privilege of being my son. He suffered, I'm
afraid, for my regrets. And no, I think, I wouldn't do it again, knowing
what I now know. But then, I wouldn't have Anne and Matthew again either.
Might not even marry George again. Such ventures seem now, in the wisdom
of hindsight, to demand a woman of more than my mettle. That's how we get
wise, by taking on in ignorance the tasks we would never later dare to do
And the answer to that stark question: did Nancy regret taking Ron in? 'No. Yes.'
Just as tolerance itself has a shadow side-allowing us to turn away from
people or events in fear, indifference or apathy-so, too, in the realm of
our most personal experiences, in the inner home of the self, it is
precisely what we fear or cannot tolerate that becomes our own shadow.
That shadow is the basement of our home, or maybe the ignored, unfamiliar
and potentially eruptive wing. What we can't tolerate out in the open, in
the light of conscious awareness, becomes our unconscious: the realm of our
own experience is hidden from us. Everything within the unconscious is not
'bad'. Far from it. Much of it is dazzling; too dazzling for us easily to
own. To acknowledge our own dazzle, and live it, we would need to give up
some of our self-pity, some of our hope that others may take care of us, or
dazzle for us. Giving up our self-pity and illusions of powerlessness is
as difficult for most of us to do-perhaps more difficult-as it is to
acknowledge that some of the ugly beliefs we have about other people speak
volumes about what we fear in ourselves.
Few writers have gone hunting the elusive shadow more skilfully than Robert
Bly. Here he describes the personal shadow, which can never usefully be
understood separately from either the collective or social shadows that it
is fed by-and that collectively it also creates. 'When we were one or two
years old we had what we might visualise as 360-degree personality. Energy
radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A
child running is a living globe of energy. We had a ball of energy, all
right; but one day we noticed that our parents did not like certain parts
of that ball. They said things like: "Can't you be still?" Or "It isn't
nice to try and kill your brother." Behind us we have an invisible bag, and
the part of us our parents don't like, we, to keep our parents' love, put
in the bag. By the time we get to school our bag is quite large. Then our
teachers have their say: "Good children don't get angry over such little
things." So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my
brother and I were twelve in Madison, Minnesota, we were known as the "nice
Bly Boys". Our bags were already a mile long.'
Towns, cities, nations: they all have their shadows. So does any organised
group, from the local Rotary Club to psychoanalytic associations to the
Catholic Church. When the group has only conscious, rational aims-like
winning at soccer-it is less likely to be affected and infected by its
shadow than when it has ideological or transcendent aims. Such aims are
not in themselves wrong; on the contrary. But the higher the aims of any
group, the more watchful the individual members need to be of where the
shadow is falling.
Look closely at how 'exclusivity' is maintained by an individual, group,
collective or nation; at who is excluded and on what basis; at how
criticism is fought off or denied. Look at what is most feared, reviled,
envied or disparaged and you will have a rapid insight into what is 'in the
bag'-what is the intolerable shadow.
Bly suggests that most of what has to go into the bag is put there before
we turn twenty. That gives us the rest of our lives to pull things out.
Tolerance is a virtue that ages well. And we age much better when we
practise it. A broad, rich, flexible, curious, tolerant old mind, open as
much to what is still to be discovered as to what has been discovered and
contemplated, offers the most splendid defiance possible to a world that
fears ageing and the elderly.
Tolerance can certainly be taught to the young and, more usefully still,
modelled for them. But for tolerance to flourish in our hearts as well as
our minds, we may need to experience a whole series of fairly violent jolts
and realisations that we can't order the world in the way we want to. Or
that we can order the world until we are breathless, but our orders must
compete with those of all with whom we share this planet.
The analyst and writer Marie-Louise von Franz, a colleague of Jung, had a
refreshingly accessible way of describing how we can learn to catch sight
of our shadow in daily life: 'Whenever we are tired or under pressure,
another personality often breaks through. For instance, people who are
very well-meaning and helpful suddenly become ruthlessly egocentric. They
push everybody else aside and become very nasty. Also, when people have
the flu or are ill, you suddenly see their shadow side coming through.
There's a sudden change of character. That's the breaking through of the
shadow. It can take on a thousand forms. Let's say you have a very good
friend and you lend him a book. Now, it's just that book that your friend
loses. It was the last thing he wanted to do, but his shadow wanted to
play a trick on you.
'We all have our favourite enemies, our best enemies. They are generally
our shadows. If people do some harm to you, then it's natural that you
hate them. But if somebody doesn't do special harm to you and you just
feel so madly irritated every time that person enters the room that you
could just spit at him, then you can be sure that's the shadow.' The best
way, then, is to sit down and write a little paper on the characteristics
of that person. Then look at it and say, "That's me." I did that once
when I was eighteen, and I blushed so that I was sweating blue in the face
when I had finished. It's a real shock to see one's shadow.'
When understood and used skilfully, with love and some humour, tolerance
allows us to embrace our own shadow. This is never an abstract matter. It
means watching out for those 'sudden changes of character' that tell you
your persona is cracking and your shadow is emerging. It means listening
with your mouth closed when others accuse you of something. It means
hesitating long and hard before you assign fault. It means owning up to
your own divisive thinking. It means refusing to believe or cultivate
myths of your own powerlessness. It means checking out your simplistic
assumptions against the complex realities. It means acknowledging the
differences of opinions, needs, wishes, desires that exist within your own
mind-and recognising how these mirror the conflicts that you may despise
that exist outside yourself. Such hesitations, reflections,
acknowledgements and incorporations also bring the flexibility, mobility,
expansiveness and depth that characterise an interesting mind. In
relationships, too, the outcome of bringing light to the shadow can be
markedly uplifting. Marie-Louise von Franz again: 'When people learn to
know their shadow and to live their shadow a bit more, they become more
accessible, more natural, more roundly human. People without shadows, who
are perfect, inflict (project) an inferiority on their surroundings, which
irritates others. They act in a manner superior to the "all-too-human".
That's why one is so relieved when something nasty happens to them. "Aha!"
we say. "Thank God, he's only human."'
This extract from Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love, by Stephanie Dowrick, published in Great Britain by The Women's Press Ltd, 1997, 34 Great Sutton Street, London EC1V 0LQ, is used by permission of The Women's Press Ltd.
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