I think I know now how the Holocaust was possible. Even as a child I struggled to understand how humans were capable of committing violent cruelties against one another — slavery and rape in particular. But now I think I have some insight.
A few months ago, I went to a talk on “the dark stirrings of the unconscious”, given by a prominent Jungian analyst to a room of Baby Boomer analysts — and me. The topic of the evening was how our individual shadow sides play out and manifest on a grander, societal scale through archetypes and the collective unconscious. She gave examples, like how, in our approach to war, our country (USA) behaves much like an individual with an antagonist character structure in a narcissistic phase of ego-Self development (called alpha narcissism). This is not a pretty state to behold, fraught with aggression, grandiosity, manipulation, control and lack of empathy. It seemed all in the room appreciated how a powerful nation with such an orientation is far more dangerous than a single individual.
Almost in a off-hand comment at one point, she encouraged us to watch the film “The White Ribbon”, set in pre-World War I Germany, as a vivid illustration of the power of the shadow side, and how alpha narcissism can be embedded in other narcissisms — for instance, how we might project our aggression (or any other emotion or shadow side) onto others to act out. The Oscar-nominated film, shot in black and white in Germany in 2009, meant to make a statement about the roots of Nazism.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to see a film about pre-Nazi Germans projecting their aggressions on others, but I did. It was riveting and disturbing, but not in the graphic way I feared it would. It was disturbing in its subtlety and the horrifying normalcy of it all.
At least that’s how it struck me. What disturbed me most as I reflected, and after I read a couple online reviews to help me understand what I’d seen (and not seen), was how little certain scenes bothered me. I found myself rationalizing or dismissing both child abuse and the various oppressions of the vulnerable many by the powerful few. I didn’t like the abuse or oppression, but sort of accepted them as the way life is. As in, “eh, that’s really no biggie” or “wow, that’s a real bummer, but oh well!”
I believe that what lead me to be so desensitized was partially my own upbringing in a strict, controlling home, but mostly my experiences at work in a large, hierarchical bureaucracy awash in politics and money. A place where cruelties have been done to people and gone unpunished. A place where (subtle and not-so-subtle) humilliations occur often. A place where reason submits to power and the status quo. A place where political and economic injustice is tolerated in the name of business practices or some manner of rules.
Don’t get me wrong, this organization is not some nightmare from a Dickens or Sinclair novel (although even as I write this, I wonder). It’s fairly normal. And that’s the scary part.
I think I have always loved action films and epic fantasy movies because in those worlds, good and evil are pretty clear cut. With the exception of some confusing (but key) characters like Professor Snape and Boromir, we know who the good guys and bad guys are in movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, James Bond and Terminator.
But good and evil are not so clear cut in real life. We are all a little like Gollum sometimes — twisted, conflicted, lost, fixated — and a lot like the executives at Skynet — thinking we are creating something wonderful and instead unleashing a monster (hmm, that’s a familiar movie theme … smells like an archetype!).
And perhaps that monster is our own ego and our own shadow side. This is also why I must create change in my life and find a better place to be. Once the best parts of me start to die, I get lost. My humanity and empathy begin to atrophy. Today, I can see possible selves inside me I couldn’t imagine before. I am capable of being cavalier about other’s pain. I am capable of accepting injustice. I am capable of arrogance and insensitivity. I am capable of denying responsibility. I am capable of committing atrocities.
And so I understand better now how humans are capable of committing violent cruelties. Just like the characters in The White Ribbon, denying the evil inside myself — my Shadow — makes it stronger, and projects it onto the world. Just like our nation denied any ability to understand or relate to the pain, anger, or conditions that could cause men to crash full jetliners into skyscrapers full of people, our inability or unwillingness to see The Other or The Shadow inside ourselves blinds us to our own capability to commit violence and cruelty. And then one day we wake from our slumber and find our hands and jaws soaked in blood.
And so I embrace the Shadow — I say hello, I get to know it, I love it, I caress it — and then I make more wholistic decisions that are mindful and not ruled by it.
Thank you, White Ribbon, for this valuable lesson.
Paz, amor, vida y fuerza,