“We’re basically nuts. We’re missing a connection.”
- David Mamet
Most of us want to get away from our darkness. We want to see it “out there,” not in ourselves. When we are in fear of seeing our own dark side we can get very clear about seeing it in the “other”. We see the terrorist, the ugly politician, the murderer, the wall street crook, the pornographer, the fill in the blank. We see them and say they are “bad.” We aren’t them; we are “good.”
But being good is often a set up for acting badly. Why is that? Why does the politically sainted Ronald Regan end up ignoring AIDS, selling arms to Iran (during an arms embargo) to fund the contras, build up the biggest nuclear arms cache in history, and kick the mentally ill into the streets—creating a homeless epidemic that endures to this day? How did good church goers end up burning women in Salem as witches? How do priests in the business of teaching us how to be good end up as child molesters? How does the richest nation in the world, the U.S., end up imprisoning more people per capita than any society on earth—2,300,000 and counting? How do slave owners view African Americans as “animals” and end up behaving worse than animals themselves? How do we start wars like Vietnam and Iraq that end up being widely recognized as “military blunders”? When Robert McNamara, one of the architects of Vietnam, was asked about how he viewed things after the war ended, he said Vietnam was “probably a mistake.”
How do all these things occur? Simply speaking, people are trying to be “good.” When we see the darkness of humanity only in others we tend to start persecuting those “others.” People get separated into good and bad categories. The other is of course the “bad one.”
Good old Freud was the first one to see this and coin the term “projection”. Freud said we humans defend ourselves against our own unconscious dark impulses. We do this by denying that the dark impulses exist in ourselves and attribute them to others. Projection incorporates blame shifting. I project what I can’t stand in myself onto you. “You’re the problem, not me . . . I’m “good.” All prejudices, genocides, and abuses of power have projection of disowned dark impulses at their core. Projection helps the person projecting justify their heinous actions. They feel protected psychologically. They can defend against the inherent guilt or remorse of hurting others by seeing them as “bad”.
Carl Jung, the swiss psychologist, was said to “smile at his own darkness.” That is, he got the joke—that all of humanity’s darkness lives as potentials in all of us, including himself. While it’s true that most of us will never kill or rape, it’s also true that we have collectively agreed to enter into unjust wars that we knew would create those exact situations. Jung was able to see his dark side and make friends with it so that it was not acted out on others. He then helped others make the same journey. Until we are able to befriend the darkest impulses of humanity within ourselves we will continue to project it onto others and persecute them either individually or collectively.
In a sense hate projects while love extends. Hate has to have a good and bad person. It splits humanity into categories. Maybe we can give up trying to be good and attempt instead to be fully human—capable of the all the beauty and ugliness we see in the world, and leaning into the beauty. Until we stop projecting we can’t truly start loving.
Mandela, Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, Amma, the Dalai Lama, MLK, Mother Theresa, are examples of fully integrated human beings who were able to extend the love they discovered by owning their own darkness (and of course their light). They gave up “splitting” and projecting their sense of good and bad. They stopped making those outside of themselves complete “others.” They may agree that some people need to be restrained, but not made “bad”. They saw themselves in the other and crossed over into full self-actualization and true compassion. With this they were able to keep extending love regardless of the horrible circumstances they encountered.
Below Alan Watts comments on his encounter with Carl Jung and seeing the psychologist “smile at his darkness” :