On Shadows


In the aftermath of the horrible events in Las Vegas, the nation has begun to pick up the pieces so that they might find answers to the unanswerable. There aren’t words to do the souls justice. They were taken too soon, and I only pray that this might draw all of us a little closer to one another.

There’s something I find bizarre whenever a person manages to carry out such an evil, heinous, act: We somehow manage to immediately diagnose the perpetrator as insane. He was a psychopath… He was out of his mind… Because to say that he was sane would be to hang a black mirror into our own souls.

We have a shadow, says Jung. A reservoir for human darkness. A place where everything we choose not to accept about ourselves exists. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it is buried behind all the desirable aspects of our psyche. It is our ‘dark side’, trained and caged by societal and cultural norms. But every once in awhile, we see it manifest itself. We see it rear its ugly head. In this case, in the form of a gunman who senselessly murdered 58 people and wounded hundreds more… But there I go again…. senseless.

“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

                     -Fyodor Dostoevsky

Its easier to call it all senseless and crazy. To make him a psychopath. Because for someone like him to be in his right mind is a truly frightening thought. We attempt to put night and day between ourselves and people like him because people like him are a screaming reminder that the Shadow exists. And to admit that we all have a deep darkness within us shatters the narrative we tell ourselves about the world.

We know the Shadow exists. Or should I say, a part of us does.

It’s the reason you updated your news feed to see the number of dead. It’s the reason horror movies sell out. It’s the reason that you don’t look away during violence. It’s the reason that during Stanley Milgrim’s experiment, two-thirds of subjects were willing to inflict the most excruciating pain available to them on strangers simply for answering question’s incorrectly. It’s the reason for the Holocaust. It’s the reason that Stanford students, selected for their psychological health, physically and emotionally abused their peers during Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. It’s the reason that protests become violent. It’s the reason for My Lai, Abu Ghraib, and Haditha. For Columbine, Newtown, and Vegas.

It is all the Shadow. It manifests itself when it is given approval by an authority, like in Nazi Germany. It manifests itself when there is little to no supervision, like in Abu Ghraib. And it manifests itself when it is in large groups, like in some of the violent protests in our recent past. It is the sins we can so easily recognize in others but refuse to see in ourselves. Greed. Laziness. Hatred. Selfishness.

False prophets preach the gospels of gun bans and mental health reform. Surely these things will stop evil from happening in the world. All the while we take any opportunity to avoid contemplating the nature of the human soul…

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

                          -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

We feel safer if the bad people are all out there, wherever there is. We bat down the hatches. We lock the doors. We place guards at the gates… But within the city, evil conspires. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. To ignore this is to ignore the Shadow. To ignore the Shadow is to be ignorant of one’s capacity for evil.

In the same way that Dr. Jekyll can’t counter Mr. Hyde without being aware of his existence, one cannot effectively control his Shadow without recognizing it. We fail at this by diluting ourselves. We virtue signal so that we don’t have to look our own shortcomings in the face. We disassociate ourselves from evil actions by calling the perpetrators monsters or psychopaths, putting a cognitive barrier between us and them. When its all said and done, Stephen Paddock may turn out to have been mentally ill. But no one wants to see him be just a normal guy who made the conscious decision to murder. Because seeing him in such a light would be an indictment of our own soul.

Only when we recognize the Shadow in ourselves are we able to repel it. Carl Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a shadow… the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” For the same reason, James said in chapter 5 verse 16, “Therefore confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man being made effective prevails much.” There is a deep emotional importance to being aware of your own darkness. Seeing it in yourself is the first step to controlling it and standing against others who are consumed by it. Ignoring it is following the dim path down towards moral atrophy that many tread, never to return.

2 thoughts on “On Shadows

  1. Great introspective, and very well written. I knew this shadow existed in us all as a child; I saw it in my father, and later in myself. I realized what it was early enough to keep that wolf where it belonged… in the shadows. We truly are all part “sociopath”. There may have actually been nothing wrong with this guy, other than the fact he couldn’t contain that part of him which most of us are able to.

    • That’s exactly it, Top. By denying our own vicious capacity for violence, for senseless hatred, for “evil”, we expose ourselves to all forms of the above. There’s a part of us that loves being the bully. The part that loves the glory of unchecked power. We deny the permeability of the membrane which lets us pass between good and evil an see ourselves as”a good person”. “Good people” aren’t capable of X. Yet we are capable of all manner of indescribable evil—if we fail to guard our hearts against it.

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