I cast a shadow
What went wrong – does the heart have a more remorseful cry than this? If only I hadn’t… . If only I had… . If only I could go back… . It would be different this time. I would knock on the door. I wouldn’t mail the letter. I would keep my eyes on the road. I wouldn’t let her leave. I would tell the truth. I wouldn’t give in to my impulses. I would follow my instincts. I would hold my tongue. I would take more care.
How to take more care – this is the question that plagues me about my own regrets. I know people who seem to know how to take care. They pay attention to each other and to the world, and they try to live without doing harm. But I think of them as good people, and what better way to dismiss them than that? I distrust goodness. The pursuit of goodness has led to countless ills on a spectrum from toe-pinching Sunday shoes to missionary zeal. Goodness is the lid on the seething cauldron beneath. Goodness is the weight of something being repressed.
“What is repressed?” asks playwright David Mamet. “Our knowledge of our own worthlessness.”
There was a time when I not only dismissed the goodness of good people around me but also bitterly resented their innocence. They don’t know what I know, was my inner refrain. They have not learned what I have learned, and so they still believe in the potential of goodness. I envied their innocence, and scorned them for it. I told myself: at least I know I cast a shadow.
I thought, at that point in my life, that if only I had faced my shadow earlier, if only I had not been lulled by the idea of my own goodness, I could have avoided doing harm.
I had been careless in life, and I was eased by the company of fictional others. Like Claire, in Zadie Smith’s novel, On Beauty. Claire initiates an affair with her friend Kiki’s husband, Howard, for no good reason, not even for that irreducible, unregulated reason named desire. Howard, on the other hand, was surprised by the desire Claire’s overture sparked in him, and by his unadmitted capacity for betrayal. “Howard was releasing a secret, volatile, shameful part of himself. And it was an aspect of himself with which he was unfamiliar, that he had always presumed beneath him. She could sense all of this in the urgent pressure of Howard’s hand on her tiny waist, the fumbling speed with which he undressed her. He was surprised by desire. In response, Claire felt nothing comparable. Only sorrow.”
When it’s over, Claire spends $80 an hour twice a week with her therapist to understand what went wrong, why she had done something against her own interests, something she did not even want to do. She is, however, more prepared to cope with the fallout than Howard, who “had no way of dealing with his new reality. He was unequal to the task of squaring his sense of himself with what he had done. It was not rational, and therefore, he could not comprehend it. For Claire, their affair was only confirmation of what she knew of the darkest parts of herself. For Howard, it was clearly revelation.”
But with all her self-awareness, there is something Claire does not want to face. “It was not possible to make the last leap – to consider what it was Kiki now thought of Claire. To do that was to become subhuman before yourself, the person cast out beyond pity, a Caliban. Nobody can cast themselves out.”
Claire can’t bear to admit the knowledge of her own worthlessness. What would be the point? A relief from the burden she is carrying, from the dread that she deserves to be cast out? More than that, perhaps knowing that the darkest parts of herself would help her to take more care.
Except this knowledge didn’t. She knew the dark parts of herself, she was acquainted with her shadow side, and she went ahead with the affair anyway. She still took no care.
For a long time, my personal regrets would sing the useless refrain “I didn’t know,” as though being forewarned would equal being forearmed. I think I thought of myself as kin to Howard – dumb, really, and clueless about all that can go wrong, all that is wrong. According to this way of thinking, knowing the worst that can happen is a sort of cosmic insurance plan (if only Howard had realized he was capable of being dishonorable, maybe he would have caught himself in time, instead of being caught out).
Maybe it’s not more knowledge that would help, but a knowledge of a different kind. It’s not that Claire didn’t know what she was capable of, it’s that knowing was not enough for her to act differently. How can we access a different kind of knowing?
In her essay, “The Child and the Shadow,” Ursula K. Le Guin uses the language of fantasy, myth and fairy tale to discuss the archetype of the shadow. The shadow is a shared aspect of our collective unconscious. Yes, it is the dark side of the soul. “It is all we don’t want to, can’t, admit into our conscious self, all the qualities and tendencies within us which have been repressed, denied or not used.” But it’s not just a depot for everything undesirable. It’s also the guide.
I do not quite know what Le Guin means when she writes that the shadow is “the guide of the journey of self-knowledge” but she has only to start talking about Frodo, Gollum and the journey to destroy the Ring of Power for me to get it. Frodo is the good hobbit and Gollum his shadow. The Ring is destroyed only not by Frodo defeating Gollum, but by them traveling together.
So what does this mean for my wish to take more care? Time has rubbed away some of my prickliness about goodness. I can accept goodness as shorthand for trying to live free. Not free of my shadow, though. The only way to be free of it would be to be a formless and two-dimensional body that casts no shadow, that has no purchase in the world. But perhaps, as Jung said, dealing with my shadow rather than projecting it outward onto others is something real I can do for the world, my part of the burden to shoulder. And perhaps, as Le Guin would have it, my shadow is not just a necessary evil, but a necessary companion.
Miriam Meinders is a nurse in Winnipeg. She used to ward off monsters by sleeping with a Bible under her pillow. She has not tested this method of protection recently to see if it still works.