Friday, November 17, 2023

Shadowy Basement

I’ve been spending time in our basement, sorting through piles of stuff that “might come in handy someday.”   Most of it never will: two canvas tents with external aluminum frames, left over from the early days of our marriage when the only vacations we could afford involved living under canvas; two cardboard boxes filled with the tops and bottoms of flattened gift boxes; an electric snow shovel that has turned out to be virtually useless for our winter conditions; half empty paint cans, a printer that no longer works, bags of clothing that really need to go to the thrift store.

Somewhere, a long time ago, I read that dreaming about a basement has to do with something going on in the unconscious.  Intriguing.   If my basement symbolizes my unconscious, it might appear that I have some sorting and cleaning out to do.

Enter thoughts about the “shadow” and the Jewish notion of the yetzer ha-tov ( the inclination or impulse toward good) and the yetzer ha-ra (the inclination or impulse toward evil).  The yetzer ha’ra tends to be a basement dweller.

Our little Torah group gathered for dinner last night and for a learning/ discussion of the story of Jacob and Esau in the parsha called Tol’dot.  There is a long tradition of associating bad choices and negative intent/evil to Esau, while his younger twin brother is venerated as a patriarch of Israel.

Rabbi Dr. Kari Tuling ( Congregation Kol Haverim, Glastonbury CT) in her d’var titled “Accepting the Shadow” (Reform suggests that “if we were to take the twins as archetypes, we might want to think of them as two facets of the same personality rather than two types of people.  Each of us has a shadow side to our personality, a side that includes the aspects we do not wish to acknowledge…so often, what we hate in others is what we refuse to acknowledge in ourselves. We might fantasize about vanquishing our foes, but the reality is this: there is no total victory. [The] shadow remains, that part of [the]self that has not yet been acknowledged.  The greater the fight against it, the stronger it becomes.”

As I read Rabbi Tuling’s words I was reminded of some words I heard years ago in a lecture by Marian Woodman, a Jungian psychologist.  She understood that if the “shadow” of the human psyche remains unacknowledged and repressed, it will make itself known in inconvenient and often destructive ways.  It will always want a way to express itself.  It likes to break out of the dark, cobwebby corners of our “basement” and wreak havoc.

Sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be able to sit in a comfortable easy chair on a distant planet and be able to have to the broadest, most comprehensive view of human behavior over the history of time.  What would it be like to be able to see, with wit and wisdom, the fullness of humanity’s impulses to both good and to evil.

Perhaps from that distant perspective it might be possible to see the manifestation of  our collective human yetzer ha’tov and yetzer ha’ra.  Perhaps we could see more clearly the  collective human impulse toward goodness and kindness and compassion and generosity,  toward the forgiveness and reconciliation and healing attributes we love to embrace about our humanity.  But from a more distant and, perhaps, more objective perspective, it might also be possible to see our collective human impulse toward violence, enmity, jealousy, blame-fixing, toward war making and annihilation of the “other.”

Marian Woodman suggested that the only way to dispel a shadow is to throw light on it.  On the individual level, this will inevitably mean acknowledging that even with all my conscious choices for good, I still have within me the capacity for violence, revenge, sadism, greed and on and on.  According to Woodman, the only way to manage the “shadow” is to own it, embrace it, and love it into the light. - - allow it space to dance in consciousness - - to be seen for what it is.  It’s power for evil is diminished when it is acknowledged as part of my humanity.

So I wonder what this might look like in a global humanity.  What might a collective human consciousness  be able to accomplish if, together, we were able to shed a loving and compassionate light on our collective shadow?  What might happen if we, as a species, were capable of saying to ourselves  that we celebrate our innate goodness and generosity on the one hand and we acknowledge our shadowy urge to hate, injure and destroy one another on the other hand?   What if we were able to make conscious decisions, acknowledging in the moment “Oh yeah - that’s our fearful shadow taking away voting rights or denying an election or limiting abortion rights or bombing a city.  Let’s attend to the fear and see if we can heal it.”

Rabbi Tuling encourages us to ask “How can we heal a broken world where the shadow side will not be repressed?  How do we allow ourselves to be made whole?  The first step is to recognize and accept the fullness of human experience.  We all have within us the yetzer ha’tov and the yetzer ha’ra (the inclination to good and bad).  The second step is to learn to love our entire selves, including the parts that are jagged or difficult…”

The biblical twins, after years of suspicion and enmity, finally reconcile and are able to come together to bury their father Isaac.  If we continue to "see" them as two facets of one personality, we catch a glimpse what the embrace of the shadow might look like.

Not too long ago, my son installed super bright LED lights in our basement.  They make it easier to see into the shadowy recesses and corners to see what is useful and what needs to be discarded.  When I can value the detritus of a life time of “maybe this will come in handy in the future,” and recognize that so much of it is no longer useful, perhaps I am on my way to, symbolically, shedding light on my own shadow and loving it into the light.

Vicky Hanjian

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