Addressing the Problem of Evil, Part III: The Shadow

The previous articles in this series discussed the importance of giving some account to the reality of evil. If we do not grapple with this reality, we merely increase the likelihood of becoming evil’s victim, instrument, or both. But wrestling with the reality of evil is no easy task. One reason for this, quite simply, is that evil does not want to be known.

There is a reason robbers don’t come to your home and politely ask when you will be away and if you keep your spare house key in the electrical outlet box by the side door. Neither is evil a dummy when it comes to robbing the house of your soul. Like the thief or a cheat, it does not want to be seen. It creates diversions, distractions, illusions, and mishaps in order to go undetected. It does not want to be identified for what it is for detection would threaten the attainment of its goals. You are probably aware of such tactics as intentionally used by other people but may not realize that evil, as an autonomous force in the universe, can be just as devious and coordinated in its workings as an individual with malicious intent. For example, evil may draw on the energy of the trickster. Consider a cancer or infection that grows undetected in the body until it is almost too late to treat; or the seemingly “random” series of events that lands you in a dangerous section of an unfamiliar city at night, with a dead cell phone and a flat tire.

In addition to the reality that evil does not want to be known is the fact that we are often reluctant to see evil as well, especially when what we might see is a facet of ourselves. Typically we don’t want to be conscious of our illusions and self-deceptions. We resist recognizing our more base impulses of greed, envy, arrogance, aggression, selfishness, etc. We try to hide from others and ourselves the parts of our personality that we don’t like. These disowned parts of ourself become what Carl Jung called the shadow. The shadow refers to those aspects of the personality that we ought to know and come to terms with, but which we have ignored, denied, or rejected for one reason or another.

Often we don’t want to know the deeper motivation behind some of our actions. But the less we know of these things–the less we are able to recognize them in ourselves–the more likely they are to cause mischief and pain in unexpected ways. This often occurs through the process of projection. Projection refers to the tendency to see in others things that we are unconscious of in ourselves. For example, we may be acutely aware of and irritated by the laziness we spot in a coworker when that same tendency to laziness in ourself goes oddly unnoticed.

We can project onto others both positive and negative characteristics, and what we project affects how we relate to them. When a negative projection is occurring, we will tend to dislike and criticize that other person, group, country, etc. We are likely to do battle with them when we really ought to be doing battle with ourself. Thus, negative projections foster attitudes of arrogance and superiority, breakdowns in communication, and all manner of conflict and broken relationships.

Carl Jung referred to individuation (becoming the unique individual you were created to be) as a process ob naturam or contra naturam. That is, a process that goes against nature. This is a paradoxical statement, for individuation is an instinctive psychological drive, akin to that which impels salmon to swim upstream. Our psyche pushes us to individuate and to become more conscious and whole. We suffer when we push back on this drive of self-growth and development. However, individuation can also be difficult work. It requires effort and sacrifice. Becoming more conscious and letting go of illusions is often painful. Evil encourages that part of us that would rather remain unconscious and undeveloped. It doesn’t want the pursuit of higher principles or the development of integrity. It prefers disintegration and unreflective behavior, a return to the more carefree and blissful state of pre-consciousness. Here we are putty in its hands, moved by untamed instincts and impulses rather than by deeper values and conscious awareness. This destructive force also knows that the less conscious we are the more easily we become its unintentional servants.

Another reason we tend to resist awareness of our own dark side is because seeing the activity of evil in oneself leads to the issue of accountability. Once you are conscious, you are now more responsible for the future of what you see. Once you know something, you can become either an accomplice to the problem or part of its solution. One thing you can’t do is to unknow what you know.

To grapple with the realities of your shadow takes courage and humility: the courage to see what you may not want to see, and the humility to accept what you find as a part of yourself. When you try to ignore or remain unconscious of your shadow, evil has found its playground.

2 thoughts on “Addressing the Problem of Evil, Part III: The Shadow

  1. Evil is relative I don’t think you can break it down to a definition, it is fluid and changes as well so I don’t think you can narrow it down to a specific definition.

    • I agree, Nick, it is very difficult to define evil. And yet I feel we must do our best because there is too much at stake to do otherwise. It is a dimension of reality which must be grappled with, a moral imperative we cannot just take a pass on because it is very complex. If we cannot offer some definition of it, no matter how inadequate or limited, perhaps we should not even use the word. And that would probably suit evil quite well. It is hard to recognize what you refuse to name.


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