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The Shadow

By George R. Elder, 6/4/23

As a little boy, I would lie in front of our big console radio (yes, I’m that old) and listen to a program called, “The Shadow.” It was a little confusing to me since it was about a good detective who hunted down criminals—but he did so disguised as a mysterious “Shadow” working outside the law and “clouding men’s minds.”

Besides, there was a sinister voice at the opening: “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men. The Shadow knows!” It was all so ambiguous and fascinating—especially for a very “good” little boy.

It so happens that late into the 19th century, our culture became fascinated with the moral ambiguity of human beings. Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde—that the writer said came to him in a dream—was an unexpected blockbuster on both sides of the Atlantic. People were interested.

Nietzsche explored human duplicity in philosophy. He exposed the hypocrisy of Christian kindness—arguing it was a ruse for the opposite, a gloating over those less fortunate. He exposed the bias of philosophy itself as an intellectual game reaching conclusions already held by an opinionated thinker.

Few paid attention to this “mad” German, however, until 1914: when conventional Victorian morality was confronted, and undermined, by a horrible War that everyone said they did not want.

Freud put the “doubleness” of apparently decent human beings on a psychological footing. He discovered in himself and his patients—by painstaking reflection and by listening to dreams—that just below the consciousness of “good” persons is something rather “evil.” It is unconscious, however, and that is why we do not know it. Indeed, we do not want to know it and “repress” or put out of sight (if not out of mind) less savory facts about ourselves.

Freud called this level of the psyche the “It” (das Es). English translators would medicalize the term as Latin “Id”—probably to put at a distance, unconsciously, the emotional impact of a common pronoun used as an uncanny noun (See Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul, 1982).

Jung was grateful for this discovery. For it confirmed what he was finding in himself and in others: an “other side” of the mind that was troublesome but real, as real as the body. He agreed that this unconscious part of the psyche lay just outside awareness—and its contents could be retrieved by making a moral effort to know the “unvarnished” truth about oneself. Then, one might be able to do something about it.

Freud’s use of the impersonal term “It,” however, conflates a personal unconscious built up during one’s lifetime with an impersonal one that is innate (but more about that important distinction in another Post).

Needing his own term for this personally acquired unconscious, Jung chose the word, “shadow”—since it was decidedly not a “scientific-looking Greco-Latin neologism” (CW 8, par. 409). “Shadow” actually comes closer to literature (and radio programs). It implies that we all have one naturally—and especially when we stand in the “light” (identifying with the good parts of ourselves) and cast a “dark” shadow behind us (with which we do not identify).

It is perfectly normal when young to deny what is “bad” in ourselves in order to build up what is “good,” but over time the psychological adult really should face facts—if only to build up the virtue of self-honesty.

Besides, what is repressed tends to “leak” into our thoughts, our comments, and our behavior. We may deny it; but that compounds our sinfulness by making us liars. Critics can point out our faults; but if we attack in retaliation, we add violence to our psychological inventory. Sensitive people, like St. Paul, may experience all this as a painful conflict: “The things I do not want to do, those are the things I do!” (Romans 7:15).

But just trying harder to be good creates a pressure-cooker psychology that—as we know from history—is liable to explode at any moment in a mad search for miscreants and the burning of witches.

Projecting our own faults onto our neighbor has been, historically, a very common way to deal with moral duplicity (See the Post, “So What is Projection?”). But that strikes me as particularly unseemly today since we know that it is the unconscious that projects—and that we are really looking at ourselves “next door” when we criticize others for (possibly) doing what we are doing for certain. As Jung puts it: “Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” (CW 9i, par. 17)

When this dynamic involves groups, it explains racism. Lighter skinned people are liable to project their flaws onto darker skinned people—the hook being the mere accident of a skin tone closer to a “shadow.” As a young man in Peace Corps Thailand, I observed some boys throwing stones at some other boys and asked a villager what was going on. She said, “Oh, they’re Cambodians, they’re darker.” How disappointing! Shadow projections everywhere.

Lest it not be clear, darker skinned people have unacknowledged flaws, too, and may project their shadows onto lighter skinned persons simply because they represent the “other side”—the other side of themselves.

What’s to be done?

Institutional or group solutions are notoriously slow at bringing about change beyond legal or structural palliatives—because these solutions ignore the psychology involved. Therefore, I suggest that each of us be a “group of one”—and address this deep-seated issue as individuals rather than waiting for society to improve.

Jung writes:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge, and it therefore, as a rule, meets with considerable resistance. (CW 9ii, par. 14)

But I can sit daily in reflection and ask “shadow” questions: So what actually happened last night? Was I somehow at fault myself? What does that say about me that I haven’t noticed before? Since dreams are “unbiased informants” about the psyche, can I get any help from that quarter? Can I improve? Or is this something I’ll have to carry as my guilt—some “darkness” that refuses to come into the “light”? The answers may be slow in arriving (if at all)—or they may come another day, unexpectedly.

In any case, one gradually senses there is “honor and spiritual dignity” in self-scrutiny (CW 10, par. 416) and becomes more comfortable in one’s own skin, less touchy, and less irritated by the dishonesty of others. “Shadow work” wears away unconscious projections of the shadow onto others and de-contaminates the world ever so slightly, but actually. As Jung describes the person who dares to do this work:

Such a man knows that whatever is wrong in the world is in himself and if he only learns to deal with his own shadow he has done something real for the world. He has succeeded in shouldering at least an infinitesimal part of the gigantic, unsolved social problems of our day. (CW 12, par. 140)


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