Friday, 30 October 2009

To thine own self be true...if you can bear it.

It's amazing how far we go to be "nice" to each other in ways that compromise what's best for all concerned.  Here's a short tale of how we get it so wrong...

A couple of weeks ago I hired a contractor (let’s call him 'the man') to address a few niggling problems in my house and redecorate a couple of rooms.  A nice young lad ('the boy') arrived as part of the crew.  We got talking and it turned out he is actually a trained picture framer from a small Eastern European country who has come to Britain to find work.  Unfortunately he hasn't been able to find a job in his field.

One day the man came across the boy painting chairs (for peanuts) at an antique store.  He recognized his potential and decided to help him get on his feet by hiring him for double the money and finding him an apartment.  The boy was very grateful and tried his hardest to do a good job, but the trouble was (and is) he is a terrible decorator!

A few days ago the boy got a job offer at a posh framing gallery.  However, he feels indebted to the man for giving him his first break and can't bear to be unkind by telling him he has found a more suitable job.  The man is equally stuck, as he has recognized that the boy has no talent as a decorator, but can't bear to fire him, as he now feels responsible for him. They are both trapped in a vicious cycle of being 'nice' to each other rather than being truly kind to themselves.

When Shakespeare wrote, "This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man" it wasn't just a hollow sentiment.  It is at once the simplest yet most complex task of being human.  But who are we if we never rise to the challenge of being true to ourselves?

Once, when facing some tough life decisions, a stranger struck up a conversation with me and said, as if reading my mind, "Our greatest challenge in life is to follow our own heart even if it means disappointing others."  I try to live by that creed, but often fall short, as it is deeply ingrained in my psyche and in our culture to be on guard against hurting others.  I wonder how different my life might be had I been braver and more honest with myself and with others?

Back to the man and the boy.  Can the boy bear to follow his heart into an appropriate job and risk disappointing the man?  Can the man risk disappointing the boy by releasing him from a job he is not cut out to do?  I will watch the drama unfold with bated breath.  My hope is that the heart will win, but experience tells me it could go either way.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Drama, Danger and Demons

I spent much of my childhood preoccupied with drama, danger and demons. Whether I was running home from the school bus with one eye ever on the lookout for the UFO that was sure to abduct me, or planning a roof-top escape route for my family for when an axe murderer stormed the house to hack us all to pieces, I was prey to a very overactive imagination.  What’s more, I suffered endless sleepless nights huddled under the covers convinced that the devil and his minions were out to get me.  (I eventually had to talk to a minister about this.  No kidding.) It should come as no surprise then, that in 1978 when the movie Star Wars was released, my world was rocked.

The battle of good versus evil as embodied by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader completely captivated me.  It resonated with the part of me that was desperate to believe that “good,” is good and “bad” is bad.  From where I stand now, I can see that my obsession with the film mirrored my own unconscious drive to be a bonafide goody-two-shoes. But the more I focused on being a good girl, the bigger my fears grew. What I didn’t realize is that the demons under my bed and the axe murdered on the path represented my shadow – my own “dark side” – and they were there precisely because I was trying so hard to push them away.

The term “shadow“ was coined by the psychologist Carl Jung to describe the parts of the self that we try to deny or hide.  Although we are born with a full deck of god-given “good” and “bad” qualities, we quickly learn, from our families, friends and the culture at large, which are acceptable and which are not, and mold ourselves accordingly. It works something like this:  We saw our brother get yelled at for being too loud, and learned to bury our loudness and become quiet; Mom was disapproving when we said we wanted to be an actor when we grew up, so we killed off our dramatic ambition; The church told us that homosexuality was evil, so we spent a lifetime in the closet. This is not a conscious process, on the contrary - it silently chips away at our psyche without us even realizing it is happening.

I can hear some of you grumbling already,  “Yea, but isn’t it “good” to be good?”  Liz Green, in her book Relating: An Astrological Guide to Living With Others on a Small Planet (1977) says “It is much more pleasant to think that one is a decent, ‘okay’ sort of fellow – maybe with a few flaws, but basically alright – and much easier also to assume that it is the government, the blacks, the hippies, the Communists, or the foreign immigrants who have created all the evil in the world.”  (Forgive the 70’s worldview.) However, that “head in the sand” approach just leaves your backside exposed and poised for a good kick, for the world around you will never stop showing you everything you have tried to deny about yourself.

Jesus advised us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  “But,” warns Liz Green, “if you do not love yourself, what will you be capable of doing to your neighbor, vindicated by the self-righteousness of your own judgment?”  She continues, “Immaturity is forgivable, even appealing, in a child.  But deliberate evasion of psychological adulthood, particularly at the expense of others, does injury to life itself, and is perhaps, in the final analysis, the true meaning of sin.”

Back to Star Wars.  Remember how poignant was the moment when Luke Skywalker discovered that the Evil Lord Vader was, in fact, not the monster he’d been made out to be, but his own father?  Beneath the pomp and posturing in his big black cape and scary helmet he was a weak and vulnerable old man.  (Ah, the gasp that went through the crowd and my heart at that moment!) Redemption arrived with the unmasking of a rouse.  In that instant Luke felt love for Vader – all was forgiven. It’s very like the process we are all called to do when we explore and discover and ultimately learn to love our own ‘dark side.” As Jung said, “We are obliged to struggle with evil, confront the shadow, to integrate the devil.  There is no other choice.”

With Halloween around the corner we will be confronted with little monsters and ghouls on every corner.  I’m going to let them be a reminder that there are still demons lurking in my own psyche that I have not yet made peace with.  I invite you to do the same.


(If you would like to learn more about your shadow, I highly recommend reading The Dark Side of the Light Chasers by Debbie Ford or the Liz Green book referenced above.)

Monday, 12 October 2009

Don't shoot me, I'm just a 1st-grader!

Living in a big city, as I do, the cross section of humanity on display at any given time is amazing.  As I was shopping in my local mall this weekend, watching and thinking and feeling jostled by the throngs of humanity, it dawned on me that the human race is really no different from the rest of the animal kingdon in the roles that we play.  Together we make up a type of food chain or eco-system of our own.

Figuratively speaking, we've got the bottom feeders/parasite types, the predator/top-dog types, the community-loving, group dwelling types, the isolated/loner types, the herbavores, the meat eaters and the omnivores, the cooperative and the anti-social, the passive and the aggressive, the hard working and the opportunistic, and on it goes.  Similarly, it is said that the human embryo mimics 3.8 billion years of evolution as it develops from a single cell organism and begins to take on the characteristics first of acquadic life, then reptilian, then mamalian, then primate and finally human. The fact that we continue to embody certain characteristics of our ancient lineage should come as no surprise.

Chinese astrology sums it up brilliantly by using 12 different animals types to classify human nature: Boar (or Pig), Rat, Ox Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster and Dog.  The beautiful thing about this system is that no one type is revered above another - all have their up side and down side, their role to play in the big picture.  In The Handbook of Chinese Horoscopes Theodora Lau writes, "Listen to the wise words of the Snake, look for sympathy from the gentle Sheep, go along witht the clever schemes of the Monkey, have fun with the ever youthful and carefree Horse, rely on the Rabbit's unerring diplomacy or depend on the strength of the indomitable Dragon. And you may get your way by humouring the critical Rooster, reasoning with the Dog, going into battle with the optimistic Tiger or bargaining with the indefatigable Rat." (pl 12)

What the Chinese seem to understand, and we in the west generally do not, is that there is an inherent balance in our human ecosystem.  We, on the other hand, percieve the the system as stressed - there are too many of (or too few) of certain "types." Thus, emotions run high and fingers get pointed.  Just open any newspaper and read about the anger and suspicion that various groups project onto each other.  How come we readily accept that cats are cats and dogs are dogs and yet have such trouble respecting the differences amongst people?

Great teachers throughout the ages have urged us not to judge our neighbors, but to love them.  But sometimes the simplest ideas are the hardest to impliment.  I find it helps if I remember what a wise friend once said to me: "There are 1st-graders, 2nd-graders, 3rd-graders, etc.  We don't hate 1st-graders becasue they aren't in high school!"  Good point.  First grade is no better or worse than any other grade - it's just different, embracing a different set of skills and challenges for kids at that stage of development.  And so it is with the rest of us "big kids."

Another source of Chinese wisdom, the Tao Te Ching says, "What is a good man but a bad man's teacher? What is a bad man but a good man's job? If you don't understand this, you will get lost, no matter how intelligent you are. It is the great secret." So now you know.  I for one, will not be keeping this secret under my hat.  I invite you to do the same.   


(If you are interested in a deeper understanding of the Tao Te Ching, I highly recommend A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony With The Way Things Are by Byron Katie.)