If it serves our children for us parents to be happy, then it also makes sense to explore whatever might be in the way of our happiness. Let’s start with fear.
According to Jung and Joseph Campbell, when one embarks on the archetypal “hero’s journey” the first figure one meets is the Shadow. Likewise on our journey to become our authentic Selves (called “individuation” by Jung), as well as our best Selves as parents, we tend to meet our inner demons right away, and then again and again at each developmental transition that we navigate with our kids. Children push our buttons; they seem at times like little monsters, and at other times they seem to turn us into monsters.
A great primer on fear, psychological development and maturation is to be found in Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. If you don’t know this story, I highly recommend it, no matter how old you, or your kids, are. In the story, Max, the central character, dons a wolf suit and chases the family dog with a fork. This shows that his mischievous side has a carnivorous aspect, and that his “inner wolf” is a “wild,” or aboriginal dog, which seeks to at least frighten and possibly consume, the domesticated dog. The unconscious of the child reader immediately likes Max, because he’s doing something that the authority figures do not like—he’s being an untamed and real “wild” self. He is also likeable, for at the unconscious level we know that Max has fears, and he is passing them on to the dog, as the most vulnerable member below Max of his family system. As a consequence Max is sent to his room without supper (i.e. he tried to eat the dog, and express his wild side, now he gets no food and his wild side will be starved until it dies and he becomes a conformist).
Next, a forest grows in Max’s room. Trees are symbols of soul, and the forest is a way of placing Max into the wilds of his untamed psyche. An ocean tumbles by (i.e. the Great Mother, more powerful than the birth mother) and then a boat (which, like a bowl, is a symbol of the self that can hold things, in this case Max’s conscious identity). Max travels to the land of the wild things, whimsical and yet fierce monsters that are caricatures of Sendak’s family members. Max dominates the monsters and they have a rockin’ good time swinging through trees and parading around in all their ferocity. This is pure wish fulfillment for the child in all of us.
Eventually Max smells something good to eat from far away and is ready to go back home—love, in the form of food, is still there in his family even though Max left (the fantasy of turning around the time-out in his room and making it into a fantasy adventure, thus outwitting his parents). But the monsters don’t want him to go and they say to Max, “We’ll eat you up, we love you so,” which is a brilliant way of showing how rage is love made hungry (a concept elucidated by Guntrip and other object-relations theorists), complete with the implied fear that our love could destroy the ones we love, consume them and end up leaving us abandoned amidst a pile of bones.
But to these hungry-with-love monsters, Max says, “No.” And here we see it modeled that the child learns to set the limits on his own wild aspect, without negating, denying or killing them. After all, we all sort of love the monster as well as we fear it because it is a part of us and we are incomplete without it. It also holds our power, which we both want to possess and fear to own and wield.
Many of us dream of being chased by villains, accosted by monsters, snakes, etc. These dreams might be understood to represent our inner Shadow and our relationship with it. Think of the Shadow as a powerful messenger who long ago appeared to us, bringing us our primitive power when we were young. The Shadow scared us in our dreams, haunted our fears and made literal shadows in our bedrooms seem to come to dangerous life. But since our Shadow towered over us when we were small, we ran from it in fear, not ready to face that dragon, much less ride it. The Shadow then had to chase us, trying to deliver its message; but the more it chased, the harder we ran in fear for our lives. Over years it becomes a pattern, (a bit like Road-Runner and Coyote) and we are left feeling both persecuted and disempowered.
A great exercise to consider is to do an active imagination with your own Shadow. Conjure the dream monster, gangster, sadist, etc. (the image of what scares you) and say to them something to the effect, “I recognize that you are my Shadow, and that if the deep Self, or God, wanted me dead I would be dead. So, while I will not blindly do what you tell me, I am ready to listen to what you have to say to me. Do you have words, objects or some sort of message, guidance or talisman for me?” Then just sit back in your mind’s eye and ear and see if the scene will start to play. Many interesting insights can be gleaned in this manner.
The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Evil is about not caring. Caring in a destructive manner is about not yet having a solid self in which to contain our chaotic feelings. The more deeply we learn to trust the universe, the more our fears are centered around the darkness that is part of its ultimate creator, a “God” concept that contains and transcends all of us and all of our different points of view. But at least we can then stop being afraid of our own Shadow, rather we can love, respect and learn from it.
As Sendak says in Where The Wild Things Are, “Let the wild rumpus begin!”
Let’s dedicate today to understanding and learning from our fears. And let’s place this in the service of whatever intention you set yesterday (or visit “A Year of Parenting Mindfully” to set your intention), and then consciously place this in the service of all our children.