Thursday, February 4, 2010

Under the Influence

Artwork by Charles Raymond Macauley for the 19...Image via Wikipedia

The lesson of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn't that humans possess a vile, murderous, evil thing within them that needs to be controlled. It's that what we repress tends to devolve towards the primitive, hence the mindless, monstrous character of Mr. Hyde. He dwelt outside the realm of reason and when released by Jekyll's potion, his behavior was beyond its control. In fits of passion, we say, I don't know what came over me, I wasn't myself. We feel possessed, as if influenced by something irrational and unrecognizable.

Robert Bly suggests maturation can be likened to becoming civilized. Within our particular social context, we grow in our awareness of what constitutes acceptability. Whatever does not meet with the approval of family or peer group is stuffed into a metaphorical bag we drag behind us (see 7/2/09). By the time we reach our twenties, he says, the bag may be rather long and heavy and twenty years later, its contents downright fearsome.

Those aspects of our personality that we do not love, we experience as being hostile or threatening. Repressed emotion, for instance, may appear in dream imagery as a black, amorphous character that lurks outside the house, looking for a unlocked door or window through which it may creep. Unfulfilled ambitions, frustrated relationships, failures in life, may behave similarly. We strive valiantly to keep them out of conscious awareness because they scare the devil out of us.

I have no doubt much of my reticence about pursuing medical school stemmed from having avoided awareness of the dream for most of my life. Not only medical school, however, but also the grief associated with having believed it was out of reach. We grieve because the denial of self is experienced as a betrayal of our own potential. We almost feel like a child who's traded a favorite toy only to discover the one they got in exchange is broken, and they've cheated themselves in the process.

What makes it so difficult to remove anything from the bag is the power it gains from being hidden. Having learned those things resulted in disapproval, we presumed there was something wrong with them -- or with us -- in the first place. The more time they spend in the bag, the more power they assume and the stronger must be the stimulus to get us to peer inside.

As a very young child, I was terribly afraid of horses. They were big, I was little, it's easy to see why. One afternoon, my parents and I visited a breeder known to my father and while I was standing apart from the adults, a horse pushed its nose through the fence, sniffed and nuzzled me. Why I wasn't distressed, I'll never know, but I said with surprise, "This horse likes me!" His owner asked if I'd like to ride him and, at my parents encouragement, I let him pick me up and place me on the horse's back. When it was time to leave, I cried and begged to take him home so we could live together in my bedroom.

Not everything in the bag is the enemy, not even most of it. But until we bring it out and let it detoxify in the open air a while, we may not be convinced. Some of our stuff might be painful, some innocent, some truly blameworthy, but all of it has gotten overlaid with years of repression until we can't tell which is which. A slow, patient, and gentle exploration may yield any number of discoveries that can enrich, deepen, and strengthen the ways we live. If nothing else, getting comfortable with the contents of the bag might make us more empathetic when someone else is "under the influence." Just because Dr. Jekyll's bag contained a monster, doesn't mean everyone else's has to.


(Public Domain image from 1904 edition of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde via Wikipedia)

(Robert Bly, A Little Book on the Human Shadow. San Francisco: Harper, 1975.)

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