Monday, March 14, 2016

The Shadow Side of Human Behavior: the Dark Knight In All of Us

“I guess we’re all two people. One daylight and the one we keep in shadow.”
--Bruce Wayne/Batman, “Batman Forever”

He was my football coach in the eighth grade. Let’s call him “Lenny”.  Even more than four decades later, I worry he’ll somehow read this essay, make me “DROP!!” for twenty push ups, and then scream in my ear the whole time. You see, I was afraid of that coach most of the time. Lenny often brought out the worst in me and my young teammates. He used fear and rage to motivate us.

Lenny was old school, a snarling, volatile, aggressive coach. Anger was his go to emotion and he used it very well. We were absolutely terrified of him and his violent temper. Miss a block or tackle and he’d get right up in your face, sometimes yelling so hard we could feel the mist of his spit as he chewed us out. Most of us had felt the sharp tip of his cleat at least once, when he kicked us in the backside.

One Saturday morning my Mom made the mistake of arriving before the end of practice. Forty two years later she still remembers how Lenny berated us with screaming “F” bombs, as we ran the field. She’d never heard an adult actually talk to kids that way. Yes we did win the title game and yes, like Lenny, we too were often mean and ill-tempered, cocky and pushy. By bullying us, Lenny brought out the worst in us.

Our shadow side.

The “shadow”: the part of ourselves, all human beings, that is the darker side of human nature.  Anger. Violence.  Bias and “-isms”. Sarcasm.  Mean spiritedness.  Revenge. The part that tempts us to flip off a driver who cuts us off or to yell at full volume when our child pushes our buttons.  The part that fantasizes about what we’d really like to do to our bully of a boss, or the nosy neighbor next door. 

We may protest, “I’d never do that!”; or deny having a shadow side, but the truth?  The shadow is hard wired into us. We wouldn’t be fully human without it: yin to yang, bad to good, better angels versus hidden devils. In my faith tradition we call it “sin” and the temptation to sin.  In Freudian psychology it’s named the “id”: the instinctual part of personality, “fight or flight”.  Most of the time we’re good at keeping the shadow at bay. We put boundaries around it. We develop and practice moral and ethical systems to keep it in check.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The shadow.  But when it gets out, slips out, comes out?  It’s ugly. 

I’ve been pondering the “shadow”…as I watch our culture sometimes give in to the worst of our personal and collective shadows.  Like the presidential candidate who snarls and growls and bellows “Get ‘em out!” at protesters, eliciting from his followers white hot rage, even bloodshed. Like high school students at a recent Boston area basketball game, who chanted at fans from a school with a significant Jewish population: “You killed Jesus!”  Like social media, the shadow writ large.  Spend five minutes on Facebook and you can see the absolute worst of human impulses, a high tech version of the mob.  Like a coach, who may have lots of championships, but who also uses the worst of human behavior to get the trophy. Is it really worth the price?

The shadow.  Powerful? Yes. Inevitable? No.

Not when we face the truth of our own shadow sides.  Admit we do have a shadow: name it, work to overcome it and tame it. A vigorous faith helps.  The best faith traditions always include confession: personal and communal rituals that encourage us to own our sins, seek forgiveness, and begin again.  Humility is important: a clear eyed view of one’s self, warts and all. Conscience too, the faithful voice within that warns: “You really do not want to say that or to do that, do you?”

Some people lean upon a community of like minded folks, a 12 step recovery meeting where we take a moral inventory and then make amends on the road to sobriety.  Folks who really love us will also tell us when we are our best selves and when we are our worst selves too.  A shadow always thrives in the shadows.  Take it out into the sunlight and it will fade away.

So too as a culture we need to take a long hard look at the people we lionize and follow as teachers, icons, heroes, artists and role models. The folks who coach our kids and preach from the pulpit, the people we trust to keep us safe and to guide our nation: do they bring out the best in us?  Do they inspire us? Do we want to be just like them?  Do they call us to be good and kind and generous and just, to live with integrity? Do they remind us that we are better than we might think we are, at any given moment?

Or, by their words and actions, do our leaders instead appeal to our base selves, evoke from the crowd rage, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and violence? Do the musicians we listen to or the games we play or the sports we watch as fans: do these celebrate and highlight human goodness or revel in human badness?

The shadow. 

It does live within all of us, of that I am absolutely sure.  It is in me. In you. In every one. What do we do with it? How do we respond to it?  As individuals and in community: that choice is up to us.




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