There's a problem in existence: we're not all we can be, and we know it.
“I feel like I’m not living up to my potential.”
“I feel like I’m wasting my life.”
“I want to be better than this.”
We know we’re not all we can be, and yet, we also know we’re limited and flawed. So we question whether… maybe this is it? Maybe this is the best I can do? Maybe I can’t get better?
And so, when confronted with an unpleasant shock to the system, we often blame and create a web of excuses that, no matter how valid, end up only trapping us and causing more pain (for us and for those we love).
Meanwhile, there’s some inner part of us whispering that maybe this is an opportunity to grow. Maybe this isn’t my limit. Maybe I can get better…
Note: This isn’t a call for perfection. The most valuable contributions in life are imperfect and come from flawed, beautiful human beings. But much of the beauty is a result of the struggle. The struggle to be better, to give better — to elevate experience, to reach further than before. This is why we’re here — this is why we exist. To make life better for each other.
We’re not enough, which means that there’s something beyond us that we need to discover, to understand.
The frustrating part is that in order to discover something that’s unknown, we have to step into the territory of the unknown. And to step into the territory of the unknown means to be made a fool, at least for a while.
A fool, literally, is “a person who lacks judgment or sense.” When we’re dropped in foreign territory, we don’t have a good sense of the lay of the land; we’re not capable of judging with much accuracy how to navigate our way. But it’s a necessary step: we have to be a fool at the beginning of getting better.
And it’s often for this reason that we falter.
When something difficult happens, the typical response is to take what we see and make it fit into the narrative that we’re already running in our own mind — even if it means warping our perspective on what we see, just a little, in order to do so.
We adjust the thing in front of us to fit our existing narrative.
But this creates a rift.
Depending on the situation, it may not catch up to us for quite a long time (in fact, it usually starts as a very small thing indeed, and takes many years to present itself in any terrible way)… but when it comes, it comes with a vengeance.
In philosophy, this illustrates an encounter with the Jungian “Shadow.”
The shadow, grossly speaking, is everything that’s unknown to you. It’s a kind of naiveté. And it’s marked by a descent into darkness.
The darkness represents the feeling of being completely disoriented, completely engrossed in chaos. Think of it as the feeling of a small prey animal who’s been dropped unexpectedly in a dark and unfamiliar jungle. Paralyzing fear. All-consuming awareness of your own weakness and vulnerability.
Jung’s philosophy, though, was that a corresponding ascent was possible — although not inevitable — following the descent. Ascent could be achieved only by acknowledging the thing of the darkness and assimilating it into yourself.
In oversimplified, modern vernacular, this means that by learning something new, you develop and improve. But it’s more than that…
Descent into Darkness
When we’re confronted with something that violates what we expect (i.e. what we know), the easy response is to deny or avoid the new information. We make any number of (often valid) excuses justifying why it’s the disruption’s fault that we’re where we are now.
But to assimilate the shadow means to let go of those excuses, to stop avoiding, to stop denying, and to confront the reality as it truly is, on its face.
When we do so, we have another conundrum to deal with:
The darkness can make us bitter, dragging us into hopelessness and despair — because we’re looking at a truth that doesn’t fit in our pre-existing narrative, and that makes us unhappy and dissatisfied.
The darkness can remind us of the gravity of what it means to be human, making us wiser and stronger, which we can then take with us as we choose to step again into everything that’s good and meaningful in the potential of the world.
No longer naive.
And no longer bitter.
Stronger and wiser, we can become a mightier force for good than ever before, because we possess an understanding of the territory that exists around us and within us in a way that we didn’t before.
Because we’ve peeked behind the curtain of the human soul and seen the monsters that stir among the angels, we can expand our understanding of the reality within which we live. And we can live as master of those monsters, in the light, rather than be mastered by them when they ambush us in the dark.
Receiving & Entering
There’s a tradition in martial arts known as Aikido, which touches on a related idea.
At Aikido’s core is the act of harmonious integration of incoming forces: when an opponent comes in for an attack, the actor receives the energy of that attack (instead of blocking it) and then uses it, redirecting their opponent’s energy into their own movement in a sort of synergistic momentum.
Instead of resisting the attack, you enter. You get out of the way of the attack, so if a punch is coming your way, you kind of turn sideways — that’s all you have to do, and suddenly you’re out of the way — [then] you move in, and now you’re in a position to blend with the attack energy, to in fact connect with it physically and redirect it.
Ringer teaches the principles of Aikido as a foundation for interpersonal conflict resolution.
But the perspective can also be applied in our inner life…
All the Opinions
The utility of this approach is further buttressed by the research that has developed Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is one of the most highly validated psycho-therapeutic methods in modern psychology. There are two fundamental undertakings in ACT:
- mindful attentiveness to the way in which you interact with challenging or problematic situations (Acceptance)
- action-oriented commitment to tangible, value-based steps in the direction of meaningful goals (Commitment)
In ACT, all of the feelings and voices inside are acknowledged. They sit present before you. You don’t work to control them. You don’t try to ignore them. You notice them; you see them; you hear them; you receive them. And then you choose how to act of your own accord — in light of the knowledge gained by listening to those competing inner workings — rather than have your behavior dictated by any one of them.
ACT offers somewhat less vivid imagery than Jungian writings, but the drive-home point is strikingly similar: when unexpected trouble or failure or disappointing shock come knocking at your door — and they will — let yourself step into the darkness. Face the things you want to avoid. Or to deny. Or to excuse. Or to ignore. Look at them.
It’s only then that you can begin to move forward.
Step into the Fight
To grow is to descend into the darkness of Truth — and then to ascend in the shadowed light of greater Truth.
But it’s no easy feat.
As we meet with the unexpected, and it stands between us and our goals, we can detach from and observe the incoming information in a healthy way. We can side-step the punch, noticing the experience in all its unfamiliarity, as we descend into chaos and enter into the fight.
Through that process, we can develop an understanding of the very thing we otherwise would most want to avoid. We can use that force to strengthen our involvement in life rather than to destroy it.
We can integrate our new depth of understanding into strength of character, fortitude for good, and wisdom, as we redirect the force of that “attack” into a bigger, fuller, better action-based life.
Or: Deny the Fight
The alternative is bleak: we can resist, ignore, or deny the incoming punch with all of our excuses and rationalizing. We can recite our narrative and explain all the reasons why it’s not our fault. Unfortunately, this path only ensures a deeper plunge into darkness.
The likeliest way to reach the light is to step into the fight, which is to grow.
Each week, I do a deep-dive into the question of living meaningfully.
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