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What We Do Not Want to Know about Ourselves

""...the dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" Alexander Sol;zhenitsyn

There is a shadow side of ourselves we would rather not acknowledge, but must if self-knowledge is not to devolve into wishful thinking. Failure to address our own darker sides is something about which Enlightenment thinking seems to be in denial. I would like to suggest that this may constitute just one example of the sorts of things we all too easily miss in knowing ourselves, and do so at our own peril and the peril of others. This is precisely the sort of thing out of which our perilous times are likely to be constituted, and for which our intimate relationships may be the best counterbalance. “Beware the Dark Side, Luke.” Ignorance, temptation, and concepts like original sin are important parts of the Western theological tradition. Such devils are also important to other traditions, the tricksters of mythology, of Coyote and Kokopelli, of Pan with his pipes, and of Hermes, god of thieves and crossroads. Could we not understand such warnings as about our natural tendencies to think ourselves better than we are?

Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution proposes that, at their most convincing, the Jewish and Christian scriptures have valuable insights into human emancipation, and much to say about vital questions like death, suffering, love, and self-dispossession. There is a common ground between science and religion in the “tragic humanism” that Eagleton draws from theology, Freud, and Marx. This the Jesuit Naptha’s opposition to Settembrini’s Enlightenment in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. In a post-Holocaust, post-Hiroshima era, the broken body of a political prisoner who has been tortured to death might provide a more realistic picture of human nature than does “liberal humanism.” A crucifix might be a more useful signifier of the human condition. Eagleton holds out for a more nuanced view of religion than one that reduces it to a flawed explanatory system based on unsupported beliefs about a supernatural agent, a view he attributes to “Ditchkins” the so-called “new atheists” of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Eagleton suggests that his alternative view has value in noncircular justifications of rationalism, and may temper the political self-contradictions of an increasingly totalitarian ideology of tolerance and diversity. Most important, from my perspective, it helps provide a critique of the self-origination, self-authorship, and self-sufficiency that presume, in the words of Stanley Fish’s review, “to pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails.”

Yes, there is a “dark and troubled side, too.” But the “sunny side” to which religious communities may be built to direct us includes family support, wedding vows, social action, and charity, just as they direct us away from our illusions about ourselves, and do so with the power of love and forgiveness. It is also clear that the only real power of humanity has been acting collectively, a particular challenge in an era of fragmented individuality, as argued by Michael Lerner in The Politics of Meaning and in Spirit Matters. There are also real religious encouragements against self-deception, and our capacity to see flaws in others like attending to the beam in your own eye before trying to take the speck out of your neighbor’s (Luke 6:42; Matthew 7:3-5). We can also blind ourselves to our own virtues, as this means we have to take the responsibility for them, but being drawn out by others to take on larger roles, to attempt greater things, to take up our crosses, is no less a part of a loving community. We have a shadow side of which we are often unaware, but we also have a “golden shadow,” with which we get in trouble when its projections onto others keeps us blind to their humanity, and our own overflowing cups, the banquet we may have for others, the surplus of love from which only fear, uncertainty, and lack of faith prevents us from giving freely, and loving wastefully.

Our culture turns everything into a commodity, abstracting things from their context. In our enjoyment of our iPads, we forget the misery of foreign factory-workers who build them, or of our clothing in the suffering of sweatshop workers in the third world who sew them. Steven Winter points out that we all too often treat ourselves in the same bounded and commodified way. Winter focuses particular attention on the development of sexual autonomy. Sexual autonomy is not about individual privacy. Winter finds this somewhat surreal: “after all, when one is alone, one does not need a condom.” If sexual autonomy is a fundamental aspect of human flourishing, it is because, as Plato points out in the Symposium, eros is a sexual desire that attaches to a person. It is something that enables us to treat another being as the person they are, sex being an agency by which we respond to each other through our bodies, even at our most carnal, interested in a relationship between persons. As Winter puts it:

“Indeed, in the earliest stages of adulthood, sexuality is the domain in which we learn to be responsive and responsible to the other. The successful negotiation of sexuality and, ultimately, intimacy requires one to develop skills and values such as empathy, negotiation, compromise, cooperation, recognition of and respect for the other.”

Intimate relationships are one of the primary ways that we seek recognition and establish identity, hence the havoc wreaked upon our sense of ourselves by the pathologies of intimacy, in narcissism, manipulation, and exploitation, or why childhood sexual abuse can destroy the very capacity for agency. An important part of what we expect from intimacy is someone who “sees me as I really am,” and one of the advantages is gives us is the comfort and confidence to be just that, our bodily selves. “You make me feel like a natural woman.”

Our relationships are our redemption. We act on each other’s behalf, and show kindness in our bodily presence, with a touch, a kiss of peace, in holding and being held, in assurances of love, in the return of hope, in laughter and in tears. The depth psychologist Robert Johnson asserts in We: The Psychology of Romantic Love: “Romantic love is the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness and ecstasy.” He suggests that “falling in love” is the most powerful projection one makes, a projection of our own most noble and valuable aspects onto another human being and they onto us. The problem is that even if there is divinity in each of us, the projections are not true, and the experience of “falling in love” is different from the quieter and more humanly proportioned experience of loving a real person. In Owning Your Own Shadow, Johnson warns that intensity of the projection obliterates the humanity of the beloved, and that while we have loosed the most sublime feeling of which we are capable, we “set ourselves up for the greatest suffering we will ever know.” Psychologists regularly distinguish between the “passionate love” of early relationship formation, including frequent thoughts of the other, as well as idealization of the other’s positive qualities and less awareness of their flaws, and the “companionate love” more frequent in longer-term commitments, with an emphasis on mutual care, which is related to higher satisfaction in life.

What may be most important, in helping us transcend ourselves, becoming what our stories about ourselves would have us pretend, and coming to understand ourselves more honestly, are our intimate relationships with others, including the enemies who often know us so well. It is in these relationships within which we may be pressed to acknowledge our self-deceptions, or by by being held to the commitments made in the name of those deceptions, and enacting them, make them real. In genuine intimacy, where such services are performed reciprocally, where we may be pressed, gently and lovingly, or dangerously and confrontationally, to become our own better angels, to be more than we were before. It is in such relationships that we come to know ourselves better, and by expecting more from ourselves, doing better than we have ever done.

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