July 28, 2008

Tales from the Dark Side

I remember a conversation I once had with a former friend. We had gotten onto the subject of the duality of human nature, something that's been a thorn in my side over the years. Without going into specifics, I mentioned to him that I was troubled by the contradiction of dualities in my own personality, and he responded that he often felt the same. He went on to describe how he was often surprised that he could have both a creative side and a more cerebral, scientific side. At that, I took an internal step back and then allowed the conversation to just peter out. He didn't grasp the darker aspect that I was referring to, and I wasn't comfortable bringing it to light with someone who might not understand.

Today something happened that's upheaved that duality in an unsettling way. After leaving work this evening, I was rushing along the sidewalk, swerving and darting around slower pedestrians as I usually do. As I approached the corner at which the subway station's located, I saw a man brace his arm against the wall and lean forward. At a quick glance, he appeared slightly disheveled in his baggy jeans and t-shirt, and a bit on the thin, almost sinewy, side. I kept going, thoughts focused on my day off tomorrow, and the idea of getting out for some play-time on a summer day. Rounding the corner, out of the corner of my eye, I think I saw the man fall over to the ground. No, I know that I saw him fall. But I was moving too quickly, was mere steps from the escalator and momentum carried me along. I made it all the way to the turnstile before the thought hit me that I should have stopped to find out what was happening to him. But, caught up in my rush, I again kept going, assuring myself that there were so many people on the corner, surely someone else helped him.

But the scene keeps coming back to me. I should have stopped. Even once I was down in the subway station, it would have taken moments to head back up the escalator to make sure that someone was helping him, or to check on him myself if no one else had. Should I have? Can I be so sure that someone else of the dozens of people on the street stopped to help him? Someone must have.

But the fact that I kept walking and so quickly convinced myself that someone else did what I should have is disturbing. It's not like I'm a stranger to my faults, I've spent time exploring my shadow and usually believe that there's not a nasty thing about myself of which I'm not aware. Like many other people, I'm easily distracted from my better nature by wants and needs or by stress. It's so easy to slip into moments in which I'm petty, selfish, angry, and uncharitable. And yet I know that better nature is there, as well. Or am I just fooling myself? This is one of my greatest fears, to be exposed as a fake, to learn that I'm not as good a person as I think I am, to find that I'll turn a blind eye when helping another keeps me from fulfilling my own wants... Despite what I've learned about my hidden, darker nature over the years, today's episode has brought me fully face to face with this fear that I've managed to avoid.

One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that by putting the needs of others before our own, by turning our attention from constant awareness of our own self to awareness of others, we can begin to find relief from suffering. This is, of course, a gross over-simplification of only one element, but it's one of the first elements of Buddhism to which I was exposed. The moment I read of this idea, it made so much sense to me that this alone is what made me choose to explore the philosophy of Buddhism. And I have seen for myself, in moments here and there, the truth of this idea. For this concept to resonate so strongly within me, there must be at least shreds of benevolence and compassion in my nature. Right?

How is it possible that such violently opposed impulses can reside in the same psyche? From the destroyer/mother persona of Kali, to Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, to Anakin Skywalker's fall to the Dark Side, mythology and literature is full of such contradictions in our selves. Such duality is an element of Jung's shadow archetype. We subvert our awareness of those aspects of our self that make us "bad", convinced that we're good and ready to grasp at any justification for our occasional lapses. Is it possible to really accept and deal with those darker elements in such a way that our "good" side is not poisoned by them?

And, synchronicity strikes again. As I was typing this, I received an e-mail from my mother, who was forwarding me one of those "Thought For the Day" things. Those things are as often inane as they are insightful, so I often delete them without reading. But I took a moment to look at this one, and found it soberingly appropriate:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, 'My son, the battle is between two 'wolves' inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.

The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.'

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: 'Which wolf wins?'

The old Cherokee simply replied, 'The one you feed.'

I'm not even entirely sure why I've written about this. I'd like to think that it's because writing allows me the chance to review and analyze the motivations behind my behavior, in the hopes that such understanding of my nature will lead me to choose more wisely in the future. But is it really more of an attempt at confession? "Bless me, Blogger, for I have sinned. I ignored a man in need today..." Have I described this situation in the hopes that one of my (few) readers will post a comment reassuring and condoning me? Today's act, or lack thereof, doesn't deserve such easy expiation. But it also doesn't deserve my self-serving, self-pitying angst. Buddhism would tell me to show as much compassion for myself as I failed to show for the man who collapsed by the subway, to recognize that I acted unwisely and to use my regret as a reminder, so that next time I can respond from my better nature. But I have a feeling that guilt will win out, for a while at least. Should give me some interesting things to think about during tomorrow's indulgent bike ride in the glorious summer weather.


Chrys said...

Hey Kali, very interesting blog post.

It's funny because I guess I have been feeling sort of the opposite way lately. A week or so ago, a friend of mine said something to the effect of, "You have to do what's best for yourself," and because assertiveness, confidence and standing up for myself are things I struggle with, I replied, "Yeah, I think I need to remember that more often," and he said, "Yeah, because what happens when you don't?"

And the answer to that is something I've been all too familiar with in the last few years (okay probably much more than that). That's not to say it's great to go heedlessly, selfishly feeding your own needs, BUT if you neglect your needs and wants, or always sacrifice them in order to put others' first, it can be really debilitating, draining, and create resentment and some of the other "evil" wolf qualities (put in quotes b/c I don't believe all those qualities are bad).

Sometimes a person does the best for the world when they are happy and fulfilled, because then you have a lot to give.

I know that if I had valued my own needs/wants more than Mr. O's, or even equal, I would have been much better off, and wouldn't have felt like my soul went into hibernation for a year and a half, and I wouldn't be out lots of money, and I wouldn't have let him keep living with me, or stayed in a loveless, sexless relationship for as long as I did. A huge part of why I did let it continue, other than fears and overall inertia, was that I constantly considered and weighed his needs and wants way more than my own, and convinced myself that I couldn't ask him to leave because of his circumstances. And I paid a big price, in many different dimensions.

More recently, I feel I sort of got fucked over by a friend of mine, partly due to my own trouble looking out for my own interests. It can be a dangerous, losing and embittering game to always do that.

I guess looking at it from the perspective of a chronic people-pleaser, it can just be dangerous to the self to always put others first. The flow's gotta be somehow equal, you know? If a person is giving and giving, and not being supported, or receiving somehow, eventually all of their life force is given away. Contrarily I think if a person takes and takes and takes and never gives, things get stuck in a different way. I think balance is really important.

But I also do think, at a basic level, that you really do have to look out for your own needs first, but maybe think of it as soul needs, deep down, what do you really want to do in your heart? Because I think people that follow that, even if they don't exactly get there but are in pursuit, or trying, or going after what they really want and following their dreams, really end up being the most fulfilled, the most able to give. Because essentially, if a person is following their bliss and their joy, they're feeding the "good" wolf, don't you think? And doing so would allow all those other things and feelings to flower.

Anyway, just some devil's advocate sort of thoughts.

KaliDurga said...

I've been in similar relationships and definitely agree with what you're saying. But that's just it-- I'm not talking about giving one's self up to another person or a situation, such as for an uncaring lover, or a mother for her children, or putting in long hours at an unsatisfying job. What I'm talking about isn't so much protecting one's own needs and wants. It's about being ready to put our needs and wants aside when the moment requires, when we see another whose needs are greater and more vital.

Leo mentioned that you're reading Three Cups of Tea. That's what I'm talking about. Not many people have the tremendous energy and commitment of someone like Greg Mortenson. But, in a perfect world, I think that we should all have just enough of those qualities to recognize a momentary situation in which we should go to the aid of a stranger, with no regard for whether doing so will inconvenience us. To my shame and regret, that's what this particular situation came down to: There was no threat of sacrificing my needs, it just wasn't convenient for me to stop.

For all I know, the guy was fine. Heck, he could have even been a homeless dude faking it for money. But I'll never know for sure, and I'm going to wonder about it for a long time.