Of All Evil I Deem You Capable
Jung said each of us must possess the utmost possible knowledge of our own wholeness, knowing relentlessly how much good we can do as well as what crimes we are capable of. Friedrich Nietzsche, though a brutal critic of Christianity, nevertheless landed on the truth at times. While I don’t trust his reckoning of the faith, I (along with Jung) respect his appraisal of human nature. “Of all evil I deem you capable,” Nietzsche wrote, “Therefore I want the good from you… Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.” No wonder many people would rather not take a look into the abyss of the unconscious. What if you discover your claws? What if you realize your “goodness” was merely cowardice and lack of opportunity? What if you actually desire so much more out of your life, but you’ve wasted your chance? What if you discover that many of the problems you encountered “out there in the world” are really just dramas of your own making? What if you must take full and final responsibility for your life?
Part of the skillfulness of living is learning to negotiate with your shadow (the unconscious repository of everything you call “not me”) in such a way that you actually grow in goodness and wisdom, rather than remain stunted, blind, and one-sided, or succumb to evil’s power. For even the most obvious of shadow contents (say, anger or lust), contain within them a necessary spark of energy towards the Good: anger contains the energy to right wrongs; lust contains the energy for connection and aliveness. As church father St. Maximus the Confessor wrote, “The soul is made perfect when its powers of passion have been completely directed towards God.” We grow by harnessing the power and potential of the unconscious in a Godward direction, not by fighting it or pretending it doesn’t exist.
If we reject or deny the existence of our shadow rather than integrating and redirecting it, we end up declaring a part of ourselves non-existent. “If you get rid of qualities you don’t like by denying them, you become more and more unaware of what you are,” Jung warned, “and your devils will grow fatter and fatter.”
Be Careful When Casting Out Your Demons
Just as dangerous as denial is the tendency to find devils everywhere. Nietszche cautioned us to take care when casting out our demons, lest we throw away the best of ourselves by mistake. Certain doctrines that took root in the West (such as total depravity) can unwittingly cultivate a deep cynicism toward the human heart that primes us to find sin in every nook and cranny of ourselves whether it’s really there or not, prompting us to do an impatient hatchet job on our budding personalities. “We are not asked to tear out or annihilate the natural activities of the soul,” the church father Origen wrote, “but to purify them. That means we have to rid it of the defilements and impurities with which our negligence has covered it, so that it may be restored to its natural youthful brightness with the native vigor that belongs to it.”
We are notoriously bad at distinguishing between good and evil within ourselves: we find demons in our mere immaturities, and we fall in love with the planks in our eyes. This is why it’s vital to have the perspective of another (a friend, a spouse, a pastor, a therapist, anyone whose honesty you can count on), for they can help us attend to those virtues we’ve unconsciously rejected, and help us sniff out and deal with our conscious “favorite qualities” that are actually starting to smell. Jung said that we integrate our shadow and put it to use by allowing it some measure of realization, tempered by the necessary criticism. Total rejection is as great an error as total acceptance. To integrate the shadow, we must give the exception a place to stand within an ordered rule of life.
The New Testament exhorts us to seek out the lost sheep, to welcome the prodigal home, to treat the stranger with hospitality, to forgive our enemies, to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and visit those in prison. Each of these actions and attitudes instantiates the same basic pattern: the center must include the margin. What is left outside, what is unfamiliar and unknown, what appears as rejected, exiled, wayward, or dirty, must be welcomed and treated with dignity. That which doesn’t fit and isn’t following the rules should be loved, forgiven, cleaned up, and granted a seat at the table. This is grace. We’re not supposed to kill our enemies: we’re supposed to turn them into our friends.
What is true externally in society is also true for our “internal society.” When was the last time you visited that strange, discarded, unruly part of yourself? When was the last time you offered a cup of water to that neglected inner other who is desperate to be recognized and fed? How often do you refuse to look inside because you secretly hate yourself?
Jung came to this realization when he recognized himself as his own worst enemy: he was the poorest of beggars, the most impudent of offenders. Like Jung, we also stand in need of the alms of our own kindness. We may forgive others, yet we rage against ourselves; we extend charity outwards, yet we hide ourselves in shame. “We refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves,” he said. We don’t become good by cutting off a portion of our being, or by hiding our lowliness, but by integrating the contrary parts of ourselves into a larger whole in a spirit of love and grace. This is beyond the scope of what personal moral muscle and consciousness alone can do. As Jungian analyst Deborah Stewart says, “If you could think your way out of this problem, you would have done so by now.”