One of my oldest and strangest memories is of being about three years old and running around the house with my stick horse bellowing the theme song from Zorro at the top of my lungs. I have no idea how or when I encountered Zorro at three years old–I have to guess that I was exposed to it more than once since I had the theme song memorized–but I do remember that I wanted more than anything else to be like him. I wanted a horse and a mask and a very thin sword and a black uniform, and I wanted to ride around on my horse and right wrongs with perfectly choreographed fight scenes that always ended neatly with the last letter of the alphabet. I’m fairly sure that three year-old me would be very disappointed that all I got when I grew was a closet full of black clothes (without the cape, which was the best part), but there is very little about three year-old me that I can relate to anymore. I grew up. I forgot the song. The horse and cape went into my bedroom closet and then into the attic and eventually disappeared.

I now know that my love of Zorro was only one of many pieces of myself that went underground as I grew up. Riding on his heels went masculine energy, extroversion, the confidence to follow my own moral compass toward justice (or to prance around the house) without asking anyone else’s permission, the tendency to yell at the top of my lungs. Somewhere along the way, I got the message that these parts of myself were unacceptable, so I buried them and pretended that they didn’t exist. Everyone does this.

Jungians call the things we bury “the shadow.” In his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow, Robert Bly uses the metaphor of an invisible bag: “We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.” This sounds like a terribly neat process–how hard is it to pull something out of a bag?–but it takes great courage to be defiant enough to say, “No,” to the societal pressures that convinced us to mutilate our personalities in the first place, and in the meantime we have to live and work with other people who carry around their own invisible bags. We play chicken with each other, daring each other to be vulnerable and show off what’s in our bag and the punishing each other when we do. We move between contexts that have different attitudes about the things in our bags, putting on masks and taking them off again as deftly as Clark Kent becoming Superman.

And, sometimes, when we are forced to confront something that’s in our bags that we aren’t ready to deal with, we take it out and hand it to someone else. Jungians call this “projection.” Bly says, “When one ‘projects,’ one is really giving away an energy or power that rightfully belongs to one’s own treasury.”

Perhaps, projection is nowhere more obvious than in stories in which a hero represents everything that is acceptable (except for some small but potentially fatal weakness to convince us the hero is human) and the villain acts on the aspects of the self that the hero has to reject. Theoretically, this energy should empower the villain and diminish the hero, and for awhile it does as the villain uses the hero’s refusal to accept their own ruthlessness against them to break the rules and gain an advantage, but this advantage comes at a price. The villain loses everything but the projection in the end, becoming invisible except in the ways they dance the dance the hero made for them, justifying their inevitable death with the “fact” that it isn’t a person that’s dying but chaos or insanity or lust.

But the death of the villain is only ever a temporary ending because the shadow doesn’t die when the villain dies. It just jumps like a tick on a dead deer onto someone else, and the cycle begins all over again. And the shadow will continue to bounce from face to face to face, confronting the hero over and over again until the hero is forced to finally reach into the bag and confront their own inner darkness, to descend to the underworld like Inanna.

This process of avoiding the dark can go on indefinitely, which is how we end up with franchises that go on for fifty years without resolution, but, eventually, in order to have real closure, the hero must be forced to confront the shadow and take a long, hard look in the mirror and answer the caterpillar’s question, “Who are you?”

 

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