He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. When you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you. –Nietzsche
I try to take the attitude that all experience is useful, and that, as Pir-O-Murshid Inayat Khan said, “we can learn from the worst fool, if we consider him a teacher.” What other point would there be to this particular abyss? Depending on my attitude, experience can be a useful, even spectacular, teacher, but I don’t always have the right attitude. I still kick and scream a lot as I am carried to the cauldron of my own attachments and boiled alive in them. As I grow older, it becomes more and more exhausting, because I find that I have to give up my own need to control my experience, in order to open to the reality that really teaches me.
I’ve been getting some great lessons, lately, in the art of projection: you know, the idea that what we are not at peace with in ourselves we attribute to others, in order to reduce our anxiety about our own darkness. Freud, Jung and others—the early depth psychologists—were big on this, and I agree. I myself have made a lifelong study of projection, because I had a lot of darkness introduced into my soul fairly early on. I notice that I’ve gone through a process of being able to notice it sooner as I mature, however, and sometimes even to laugh at myself when I see what I’m doing. I do try to acknowledge my foolishness and take responsibility for it, but it’s pretty hard work, given the size of my ego.
What is more difficult, however, has been coping with being the object of others’ projections. I tend to be extremely impressionable (dammit!) and have always tended to soak up the feelings and thoughts of others. I am even quite a creditable scapegoat, a quality I can attribute to growing up in a narcissistic, alcoholic family in which someone had to take the blame, and small children, determined to worship their parents, are very handy for this purpose. But it gets old, and survival has meant identifying this tendency and doing my best to keep myself out of harm’s way. But it still rears its ugly head from time to time.
Two cases in point: first is my new son-in-law. Here is a young man who, according to his own account, grew up in a very difficult family, and he is only slowly, at his young age, finding his way to a healthy selfhood. His chosen process, at the moment, is projecting all that he cannot accept in himself and his own family onto his new father-in-law and me. His behavior is so blatant and immature that, in his case, it’s fairly easy to laugh at it and leave him to his own devices, but it does get wearying at times. And I really don’t choose to be the object of his need for self-esteem, so I have taken myself out of his range, unwilling to be fired at constantly for a crime I didn’t commit.
The other situation I am learning from at this moment is a more poignant one. I had a friend, teacher and therapist many years ago, a fact which in itself shows why the relationship was difficult to navigate. I was quite young at the time, still a “holocaust survivor” of the inferno of my painful childhood. I’m sure I was carrying a major case of post-traumatic stress disorder, to say the least. I was also, oddly, heavily into my own particular “spiritual trip” of the times, and all this combined to make me arrogant, needy, unkind, presumptious and judgmental, albeit occasionally inspiring. I’m sure I must have had some good qualities, but looking back, I have to say that I must have been a real pain at times. Because of all this, I must say that this man really, really saved me in many ways. He was very formative of many of my attitudes, and he was a good friend, too. I’d like to think I was, too. Yet as we grew, we kind of grew apart, because we made different decisions as to how we wanted to comport ourselves in our lives. If I had to express briefly my perception of our differing decisions, I would say that he decided that he’d had enough pain and angst and negativity in his life, and was going to create the “good life” for himself. He’d paid his dues, and he’d had enough, and now he was going to run the show. I gather, from him, that he is very happy today, and feels that he has made the right decision. He is wealthy, and does what makes him happy. Sounds good to me, but I went in a different direction because, I suppose, my more Buddhist leanings direct me to open to all of life, and life is suffering and joy both. Wholeness, for me, is the embrace of all that comes my way, no resistance, but finding the still spot within, the vantage point from which I can be the observer but not the prisoner.
Oh, well, hard to express, and I don’t know whether this makes sense or not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, really, because what I’m trying to work with, here, is our collision when we tried to renew our contact after some 20 years. In fact, we couldn’t, because he was very caught up in the image he’d internalized of me when I was truly among the “walking wounded,” and he was quite terrified that I would be a threat to his newfound freedom.
I will admit that this pissed me off, because I felt imprisoned in a tomb of his own making, unable to be who I have become, and disappointed that I was evidently not “allowed” to start fresh, appreciating the past from the vantage point of a growing freedom. This man needed very badly to see me as I had been, and unwilling to allow for any expansion of being at all, on my part.
I did not behave well under this particular projection. I was, as I said, pissed, and I wanted to be a person, not the projection of his fears about “high maintenance” women who sucked him dry. Good grief, I hadn’t seen him in 20 years!! We were, at the time, living hundreds of miles apart, and I am more inclined toward a solitary life than the “social butterfly” one I tended to lead when we had known each other. I was puzzled and frustrated that this person was determined that I could not possibly have changed and that he should beware of me. The remnants of psychological transference and therapeutic neuroticism didn’t help things, either, which is why “they” say you shouldn’t do therapy with a friend. In this case, “they” are probably right. The more I tried to protest this man’s insistence on seeing me as he felt safe seeing me, the more he insisted on his own point of view, completely ignoring my input. There was no room for my own reality in the context of the connection, and I gave up eventually, smarting and angry. Part of me wanted to laugh in his face, because the whole thing truly was ridiculous, but it pushed enough of my buttons that I indulged myself in a certain amount of anger, instead.
Ah, well, water under the bridge. But I saw him the other night at the natural foods store, and was quite surprised when he spoke to me; I hadn’t even recognized him, at first, but he evidently recognized me, and we said hello, I introduced him to my family, and we moved on. I found the scene rather sad and, in a sad way, amusing.
So: projection. We live in a hall of mirrors, and we constantly project what we are terrified of into the mirrors that pass before us. I ask myself if we are more prone to it in this Judeo-Christian culture where dichotomy is a moral rule, or whether all people tend to do this. I suspect not, because I find that it is possible to work with the tendency, however slowly; but meanwhile, we keep hurting and limiting each other by our need to make the other guy wrong, so that we can feel right. It’s very sad, really. I would like to reach a place where I accept my own wholeness—darkness and light and everything in between—so deeply that I am not daunted by the other guy’s wholeness, or her/his difference. I would like to develop the willingness to plumb my own depths to the place where I find the Other and am able to embrace that soul.
My beloved Dr. Jung was right when he said (paraphrasing here!) that the fate of the world is hanging by a thin thread, the thread of the human Shadow. Unless we are able to confront, embrace and integrate our own darkness, the source of our confusion and our creativity and our growth and our joy and the inherent tragedy of the human experience, we are in danger of self-immolation, both as a world community and as individuals.
One thought on “This Hall of Mirrors”
Good to read this comprehensive post – I like the way you bracketed your own experience with the quotes from Neitzche and Jung. What you say here echoes in all of us in our own lives.
And as to seeing old “friends” who have become new strangers, it sure reveals our own journey, with the contrast of where we are now with who we were then – or who we thought we were. Finding ourselves frozen in someone else’s hall of mirrors is a Citizen Kane nightmare, and even breaking those mirrors doesn’t free us from our own. As you said: we confront, embrace and integrate! Thanks for this. Lots to think about.
By the way, I watch Dora the Explorer with my granddaughter, and Dora always has three places to go, shown on the map that gets her where she needs to be. They repeat these three places together as they travel. I imagine a Dora the Explorer episode for grownups, where they look at the map and I hear them say: Confront, Embrace, Integrate.