Why good people do bad things.

How many of us know who we really are?

Who amongst us can honestly claim to have never felt the presence of the darker emotions that prowl the periphery of our idealized selves. Rage, greed, desire, jealousy, hatred… these are but alienated, unexamined  aspects of the self that are denied access from conscious awareness, relegated to the wastelands where they are doomed to wander until called.

At some stage in the distant past I worked in the criminal wards at Valkenberg psychiatric hospital where men who were accused of the most heinous crimes (rape, murder, incest etc) were sent for observation and evaluation. At one point I was conducting between five to eight evaluations a day. It was both fascinating and traumatizing work. Many of the men I evaluated had committed crimes not because they were ‘evil’ (I have yet to meet an Evil man), but because they were either- under the influence of a substance, mentally handicapped (including head trauma),  psychiatrically ill (e.g. paranoid schizophrenia) or prone to acting out their repressed feelings of chronic powerlessness violently upon others. In hindsight I’m sure I saw evidence of the Shadow stalking the dimly lit passages of Valkenberg, but at the time I didn’t recognize it.

After working with many men for many years it has become painfully evident that within each man’s psyche lurks a Shadow. The Shadow can be defined as all those aspects of ourselves that make us uncomfortable with ourselves, the split off, denied, rejected parts of Self that are exiled to the unconscious.   Our“complexes” – those historically charged clusters of energy, organized around particular personal experience in our past — aid in protecting our Shadow’s territory. These energies form our first and deeply entrenched anxiety management strategies (projection, denial, avoidance, repression) to assist us in avoiding knowing what we don’t want to know about ourselves. We then project onto others aspects of ourselves that make us uncomfortable with or about ourselves. These energies and strategies feed the Shadow, often with terrifying results. Jung probed these darker recesses of the psyche with exquisite precision. He wrote:

“There can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected”.

“Psychology and Religion” (1938). In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131

“We know that the wildest and most moving dramas are played not in the theatre but in the hearts of ordinary men and women who pass by without exciting attention, and who betray to the world nothing of the conflicts that rage within them. What is so difficult for the layman to grasp is the fact that in most cases people have no suspicion whatever of the internecine war raging in their unconscious. If we remember that there are many people who understand nothing at all about themselves, we shall be less surprised at the realization that there are also people who are utterly unaware of their actual conflicts”.

“New Paths in Psychology” (1912). In CW 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. P.425

At times it appears that we are all recovering children, stumbling about in big bodies, in big roles with big consequences. The only variance between us appears to be our tensile strength, our resilience, our will to become. The challenge then is to begin to reclaim our personal authority, to realize that we are not our history, not only what happened to us and how it all got internalized. We are also our aspirations. We are what wishes to come into the world through us.

The Shadow is not something to defend against, but to be met head-on, explored, eventually integrated into the whole of us, for when we meet our Shadow, there we are most fully in the game, most completely in the arena in which meaning is won or lost, and life more fully lived.

(3:51 am)…hmm, perhaps Erikson was talking rubbish.

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Wooden flaws…


I have made a contract with myself that if I wake up in the middle of the night, I then have to write at least 500 vaguely cogent words as penance. I borrowed the slightly adapted idea from the psychologist Milton Erikson who had interesting ways of treating chronic insomnia. He told one man to polish his wooden floors upon waking, night after night the man woke up, got down on his hands and knees with a small cloth and polished the wooden floors in his home (an onerous task indeed as it took well over an hour to complete). After developing a particular distaste for the task, Erikson claimed the man ‘slept like a baby’ (although in my home, the words ‘sleep’ and  ‘baby’ are certainly not  commensurate).

After reviewing my recent entries it is painfully evident to me that at times I am prone to feeling too much. Although I do feeling well and my emotional landscape is well traversed, it can become rather a bother. Not only have I charted rather obscure areas of my own emotional terrain, but I wade around in other peoples feelings all day (images of subterranean Paris in wellington boots and a head-torch comes to mind). On occasion, the result of this is that I become incredibly sensitized to my environment and when shock waves roll through the collective psyche of the broader system (e.g. Marikana, Bredasdorp etc) I can short circuit. A short circuit is essentially when I begin to drown in feeling without titrating it with rational thinking, this can lead me into the unlit areas of mind called despair and hopelessness. I’ve been in these neighbourhoods before and  know the kind of characters who hang around the street corners peddling woe and self recrimination. I’m not currently in the market for any of their wares.

So, although I am awake at some ungodly hour, I’ll try to reconstruct Hope with some sticky tape, wood glue and some good ‘ol fashioned Tennessee bourbon (a pity the latter is a compensatory fantasy as I head into a full day of work, but never mind) so instead I’ll have to return to reading my suitably soporifically titled book  ‘Changing Men in South Africa’ and hope it has a happy ending.

386 words, I’m going to have to get more wax.

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Cry The Beloved Country

It’s 3 a.m.

I recently joined a Dream Analysis group in order to expand my knowledge about what Freud called “the royal road to the unconscious”. During last night’s group I offered two dreams I had had the previous night in an effort to explore what had left me feeling anxious throughout the day.

A bit of context may be useful before I describe the dreams. I live in an area that has been plagued of late by numerous burglaries, while I am not particularly attached to my material goods, I am worried about leaving my daughter and her caregiver in the house during the day. This worry is only vaguely ameliorated by panic buttons, armed response, security gates and two particularly docile basset hounds.

On my way to work I had listened to yet another report of a violent sexual attack on a young woman who had passed away as a result of her injuries. I was filled with deep despair and a now familiar helpless rage as I contemplated the violence and ignorance which ravages much of our collective psyche. The powerful feelings built rapidly and I wept as I thought about the horror she must have endured, about my own daughters and how vulnerable and blissfully unaware they are in what feels  to be a country drowning in violence, greed, poverty, apathy and ignorance.

I parked my own swirling fear and anger  as I sat down with my first client and gently helped them unpack their own. I have been a midwife for others trauma for many thousands of hours and have become proficient at separating out my own internal struggles from those of my clients (which does not exclude the ability to resonate deeply with their experience). At the conclusion of my work day, I have to shift gears once again in order to accommodate  the duties and concerns of householder, father and husband, to separate the sometimes traumatic content of my work from my gentle family… but as my conscious mind dims and surrenders to sleep, my defenses wink out and a whole new landscape unfolds.

I am asleep but awake in a dream. I am in my bed asleep when I become conscious of a noise. It is a very specific noise. It is the sound of a carjack wedged between burglar bars stretching them open. I’ve never heard the sound before but I have never been more certain of anything. My eyes snap open into darkness and I am immediately flooded with terror, not for myself, but for my family. I realize that I have woken up exactly as I did in the dream, I can still hear the sound in my mind.

I am asleep again. I awake in the middle of a choppy ocean. The sky is a dispassionate grey, I am perched precariously on a very small surfboard struggling to hold my balance. I am cold. Beneath me lurk large dark, prehistoric shapes that some part recognizes as being sharks. I can taste the fear in my mouth. It is mixed with blood. I hear my daughter cry out, I paddle about furiously seeking her out before realizing that she cannot possibly be in this landscape and that I must be dreaming. I awake terrified she will be devoured.

Now without launching into an exhaustive Jungian archetypal deconstruction of the dreams, is it not possible that I, like many millions of other people in this country am afraid? Each day the fear we feel on both a conscious and unconscious level  is repressed and denied by our ego.  The sacred spaces of this country are being plundered and defiled on an hourly basis and my heart is heavy with grief and fear. What I repress during the  day will visit me in some other way and it falls to me to  acknowledge honestly the powerful feelings that are moving within me, to take responsibility for what I feel instead of projecting my helpless rage and fear onto those who will never know, nor care what I feel and to  empower myself and those I serve. My family, my community and myself. I am still confused as to how to make a meaningful contribution to the healing of this country, even if I never live long enough to see a change.

The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.


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One of those F*%$ing days!

Dear Diary

Today was just one of those F*&%ing days.

It started with my beautiful limpet like daughter bashing on the bathroom door  shouting “Dadda! Dadda!” while I was trying unsuccessfully to move my now chronically paralyzed bowels (probably a bit too much information but there you go). My morning bathroom routine used to be one of the last shrinking bastions of independent space, no longer. Last week she managed to maneuver herself into the bathroom while I was on the loo and demanded to sit on my lap, my wife found us like that, she thought it was amusing, I didn’t. But anyway I digress, the point is that there I was, trying to immerse myself in a frightening article I was reading

http://dailymaverick.co.za/article/2013-01-30-a-new-south-african-syndrome-scandal-fatigue ,which highlighted the egregious devil may care attitude of certain corrupt officials of the ruling party while they gorge themselves at the trough. In hindsight no wonder I am constipated.

The wailing outside the door grew impossibly loud and as I glanced at my watch I realized that I was horribly late for work. The next half an hour deteriorated into bedlam culminating in my leaving home in an extremely agitated, irritable state. I still had to get my ten year old daughter to school and while I attempted to not let my irritation show while she prattled on, I almost drove straight into the back of a very large middle aged man wearing spandex (plumbers crack et al) as he weaved uphill in the middle of the road. I gave an irritated little hoot, he gave me a stubby finger and a litany of expletives which broadened my daughter’s rapidly expanding lexicon… for a very brief moment a spectacularly vivid murderous phantasy flashed through my mind but thankfully my sometimes shaky prefrontal cortex although barely online was able to regulate my powerful primordial impulse.

What was interesting to note as the day continued to disintegrate (I’ll spare you the quite exasperating details) was that I began to observe my mind as an interested observer. I watched it with great curiosity as it began to mutter and gnash its teeth. I saw my mind swell as it inhaled judgements, anger and fear with alarming, allergic intensity. Each incident, each perceived sleight gave my mind more fuel to wage war on itself. At some point of  the day, after watching numerous reruns of the same repetitive, negative cognitive loops,  I managed to transition fully into the Observer after becoming quite bored with my mind’s histrionics after using a combination of CBT and mindfulness based strategies which have historically been very effective in bringing my runaway mind to heel. In order to further detach from the drama my inflamed mind had created throughout the day, I had to shift my awareness into a kinetic pursuit i.e. exercise (in the absence of my yoga mat or surfboard I walked… a lot). Furthermore, when my mind and body were quite weary from the drama I had put them through, I decided to immerse myself in an alternate reality by watching some escapist schmaltz when my family were asleep.

And finally Dear Dreary Day Diary, I drag myself to you, as my confessor in an effort to unburden myself  from the mindless drama I sometimes create.

Now, let’s see what my dreams will do with this day.

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