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Embracing our dark sides: Tolerating the Shadow Side

Embracing our da
rk sides

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 real.

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 processes.

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 outside yourself.

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 inner strength.

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 [my italics].'

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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Last update: 2001-11-25 21:44:23 (EEST).
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