Saturday, 30 August 2008
Persona and Shadow
Over the past day or two I have been reading John Fowles' documentary book The Enigma of Stonehenge. I got it because I was interested in John Fowles and not because I was particularly interested in Stonehenge, but it is a fascinating story. The familiar ring of giant stones was built by my ancestors in several phases over about 1300 years from 2800bc onwards. No one is quite sure what it was used for, but its construction was made possible when one neolithic group conquered and enslaved another, and stole their technologies and some of the big boulders they had put centuries of work into assembling at Avebury. It seems likely that amongst the uses to which Stonehenge was put was human sacrifice, a practice my relatives were apparently quite keen on back when they were painting themselves blue. So there in my ancestry is murder and warfare, enslavement, and the sacrifice of children. I've got to assume that the people who did this were not too dissimilar from me in their genetic makeup and that if I had been born a couple of hundred generations or so earlier I would have been an enthusiastic participant. So what stops me from indulging in my ancestors' unpleasant behaviours now? A different growing environment, that's all.
Some people vaunt "natural behaviour" in humans and decry the "repression of our natural instincts" as something harmful. My ancestors show, however, that amongst my natural inclinations are some fairly nasty tendencies. If I am to live as part of a society where we don't habitually murder people because we fancy their croplands or wish to offer them as a gift to the Earth Goddess in return for better lambing averages, some of my natural tendencies have to be rigorously and ruthlessly suppressed. This process of learning to hide the behaviours not suitable for our culture is part of the work of childhood. We learn what is socially acceptable behaviour and form all of our desirable traits into a sort of mask, our persona, which is the self we use to deal with the world. Our less desirable traits are pushed down and out of sight, into the darkness of our subconscious; any time they pop their nasty little heads up we push them back until they are so far down we don't notice them any more. They are not all gone though. They live down there in the dark, forming a sort of anti-personality, a counterpoint to the persona, which Jung calls the shadow. For the most part it is good that the shadow is repressed; we could have no sort of civilisation if it were not so. But on the other hand, our choices about what is repressed are sometimes a bit arbitrary.
So when I am four, my father says to me, "Kelvin, don't fart before your mother" and I reply "sorry, I didn't realise it was her turn." Then, in the next 25 seconds, I painfully learn the social undesirability of flatulence and of making smart replies to my parents. These two get pushed into the shadow, but so too, perhaps, does mental and verbal dexterity, and inventiveness, and self assertion. It is of course more complex than this. As well as the process of repression, the shadow is formed by the variable rates of development of our most important personality preferences: our tendencies to choose the inner processes of intuition, sensing, thinking and feeling. A good introduction to this process is found in Naomi Quenk's excellent book Beside Ourselves. What is important for spiritual development is to realise a number of things about our shadows
They are always there, and can emerge, often in times of stress or tiredness, to influence or even take charge of our personality by temporarily displacing our persona.
We will never but never get rid of our shadow or ever be fully conscious of it.
Nevertheless, growth requires increasing understanding of the structure and makeup of the shadow, and the integration of these things into our complete personality - or at least the partial integration of them.
In the final analysis, our persona is a temporary structure, one that we, and those closest to us have formed for culturally defined purposes. So is the shadow a temporary structure. One day we shall grow above and beyond both.