On shadows, parenting, and Spinoza
Before we jump into this week’s regular programming, I want to share some thoughts on the horrific events unfolding in the United States. As I read the decisions coming down from the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and repeal New York’s sensible gun carry laws, I couldn’t stop thinking about Baruch Spinoza. In the 17th century, Spinoza transformed the European enlightenment with his rationalist magnum opus, Ethics. Before that, he was banned from the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam for harboring “evil opinions.” The ban has never been removed.
What got me thinking was Spinoza’s laser focus on law and society in his other major work, the Theological-Political Treatise. Building on centuries of medieval Jewish scholarship from Abraham ibn Ezra to Gersonides and Maimonides, Spinoza demonstrated that the Torah is a work written by humans full of textual fallacies and inaccuracies. He even used the scientific thinking of his time to explain how miracles elucidated in the Torah were simply acts of nature. Pretty hot stuff for the late 1600s.
When Roe was overturned, my thoughts turned to his argument that the Torah was essentially the political constitution of the ancient state of Israel. It wasn’t divine but rather a codification of laws for an ancient state. Because that state no longer existed, the constitution was no longer valid. Moreover, the laws and customs outlined in the document belonged to a different time and place at odds with contemporary thinking and reason. Put in another way, it wouldn’t make sense for me to follow the laws and customs of the US while living in South Africa (especially now!). The same can be said for living according to Torah law in contemporary society.
Spinoza remains a controversial thinker, but his ideas continue to find relevance in our society. With an activist Supreme Court overturning settled law in favor of originalist interpretations of the constitution, Spinoza’s arguments are as relevant as ever. The US constitution, like the Torah, belongs to a different time that had radically different customs and attitudes from our own. Most of us thought the American judicial system understood this unavoidable fact but that doesn’t seem to be the situation. It’s shockingly sad to watch America return to the pre-modern era.
Once upon a time, I was on an academic path focused on Spinoza and his community. While studying Spinoza in Jerusalem, things took a different turn and I found myself writing about politics. Maybe the circumstances of my situation caused this abrupt change, but I think there were deeper psychological reasons at work. My inner center was never committed to academia. Citing many traditions before him, Carl Jung argued that each individual has an inner center with its own destiny. Most of us drift away from that center causing emotional turbulence.
Marie-Louise von Franz, the brilliant analyst who trained under Jung, explains the backstory in Man and His Symbols. “Throughout the ages, men have been intuitively aware of the existence of such an inner center. The Greeks called it man’s inner daimon; in Egypt, it was expressed by the concept of the Ba-soul; and the Romans worshiped it as the ‘genius’ native to each individual. In more primitive societies, it was often thought of as a protective spirit embodied within an animal or a fetish.”
The inner center has a life of its own but we can access it. This requires a deep dive into all corners of the psyche, including the unsavory parts. Our shadow, the aspects of ourselves that we are ashamed of or prefer to ignore, needs to be explored to locate one’s inner center. This is an especially difficult task in modern society because we devote much attention to the light sides of our psyche, which are often associated with the ego. One of Jung’s great insights is that the ego and the shadow come from the same source and balance each other. To make light is to make shadow; one cannot exist without the other.
Again, von Franz adds vital insight: “The actual processes of individuation—the conscious coming-to-terms with one’s own inner center (psychic nucleus) or Self—generally begins with a wounding of the personality and the suffering that accompanies it. This initial shock amounts to a “call,” although it is not often recognized as such. On the contrary, the ego feels hampered in its will or desire and usually projects the obstruction onto something external. That is, the ego accuses God or the economic situation or the boss or the marriage partner of being responsible for whatever is obstructing it.”
To honor and accept one’s shadow requires a profound spiritual discipline. The shadow represents unknown attributes and hidden qualities of the ego, aspects that belong to the personal sphere that most of us simply don’t want to face. The shadow can also be created by collective factors that stem from outside the individual’s personal life but that’s a topic for another day.
Accepting the shadow is “whole-making” and one of the most important experiences in the process of individuation. Some of the “pure gold” of our personality is relegated to the shadow because it can find no place in that great leveling process that is culture. To draw the skeletons out of the closet is relatively easy, but to own the gold in the shadow is terrifying.
Robert Johnson, the famed Jungian, writes, "whenever we pluck the fruit of creativity from the golden tree, our other hand plucks the fruit of destruction. Our resistance to this insight is very high! We would love to have creativity without destruction, but that is not possible.”
In Jungian thought, the first half of life is understood to be devoted to the cultural process—gaining one’s skills, raising a family, and disciplining oneself in a hundred different ways; the second half of life is devoted to restoring the wholeness of life. If we don’t restore wholeness, emotional turbulence (often in the form of a mid-life crisis) is bound to blow up in our faces.
Through dreams, dream analysis, and active imagination we become acquainted with aspects of our personality that we spend our lives ignoring. This is what Jung called “the realization of the shadow.” He used the term “shadow” for this unconscious part of the personality because it actually often appears in dreams in a personified form.
Working with one’s shadow can facilitate emotional breakthroughs and clarity about one’s life path. For a parent, the stakes are even higher. I am going to quote Robert Johnson at length here because he beautifully explains the relationship between one’s shadow and parenting:
“Probably the worst damage is done when parents lay their shadow on their children. This is so common that most people have to work very hard to throw off their parent’s shadow before they can begin their own adult lives. If a parent lays his shadow on a young child, that splits the personality of the child and sets the ego-shadow warfare into motion. When that child grows up, he will have a large shadow to cope with (more than just the cultural shadow that all of us carry), and he will also have a tendency to put that shadow upon his own children.
The Bible tells us that ‘the sins of a man shall be visited unto the third and fourth generation.’ If you wish to give your children the best possible gift, the best possible entree into life, remove your shadow from them. To give them a clean heritage, psychologically speaking, is the greatest legacy. And, incidentally, you will go far in your own development by taking your shadow back into your private psychological structure—where it first originated and where it is required for your own wholeness.”
Many ancient societies didn’t endure the mental crisis we face because they were more connected with the unconscious through dreams and rituals. As parents and individuals, we need to rescue those ancient techniques and approaches. Dream incubation and analysis have been a great starting place on this journey for me. Machiel Klerk’s new book is an accessible guide for unlocking these truly magnificent parts of the psyche.
My longer essay on psychedelics, parenting, and Jung is finally going live next week over at The New Fatherhood. Kevin has written a beautiful essay this week introducing the topic that I strongly recommend subscribing to read. Next week, I will publish an excerpt of the piece. In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Should I continue down the Jung rabbit hole with this newsletter or is it time to change things up? The comment section is open. Also, if you like this newsletter, please share it with your networks. You have my unwavering gratitude!