“A miserable collection of little secrets, that’s all any of us is. ”
~ Guillaume Musso
When I was four years old, I would climb into bed next to my mom each night, listening intently while she made her way through a few pages of “Peter Pan”. With an Anglo accent I didn’t yet know she had and mispronunciations I didn’t yet know were funny, she’d read slowly, running her finger underneath each word as she went.
I both cherished and despised this nightly ritual. While the books were marvellous—all fluttering bonnets and rugged adventures—I was perplexed by the ease with which my mom turned those strings of letters into beautiful words and sentences. How does she know what they say? It was the most infuriating thing in my little life.
Later, now, this insatiable curiosity—the desire to be in on the joke, to see the answer, to have all the pieces to the puzzle—remains one of my guiding principles. It’s what turned me from a discontented writer into an editor, from a doer into a questioner. It’s likely that you’re familiar with this as well. Whether you are an editor, a publisher, writer, strategist, or, most importantly, a reader, odds are that curiosity—the desire to know all the things—propelled you to where you are today.
Yet curiosity is tricky. It’s the first thing that pushes us forward, but it’s also one of the first to hold us back: to keep us from shipping good ideas because we’re too busy lusting after unachievable ones. If we want curiosity to take us further, this first principle demands a second look.
Of particular interest is Peter’s shadow which somehow manages to “fall off” now and then. The notion of a free shadow, detached from its source object, is rather peculiar. In order to explain its purpose in context, themes of courage and fear, fantasy and reality, happiness and sadness, strength and weakness, and past and future must be kept in mind. A possible symbol of each of these elements, Peter Pan’s extraordinary shadow sheds light on childhood and the process of growing up.
Our childhood, fantasy or real, is also a shadow we leave behind. They are there like a shadow one can’t escape from or loose watercolours that are yet to dry: you can still tip the page ever so slightly and change the image completely. It is a thing so vague, so fuzzy, and so distorted that it ends up more constructed than real. You narrate to yourself that something was a good experience because it was meant to be so, regardless of what may have happened and how you actually felt at the time. In your mind cave, deep, deep inside, only a fraction of the truth exists: the rest is what you make it. It is the frame that we now apply, just like beer goggles, or the fact that everyone thinks high school was awesome just after they leave. Your childhood nostalgia becomes more a reflection of who you are now than who you once were. The same applies, of course, to the reverse: to people decrying the stupidity of uniforms and childishness. It’s just a bitter reflection on what probably wasn’t that bad.
I also often worry about whether people change so much that they become different people. What links ‘past me’ to ‘current me’ other than some bones, flesh, and a distinct lack of muscle? We grow, we change, and, I don’t always know if I like the little twat that logically precedes me. I can just see ‘the child I was’ plotting his revenge for stealing his body and hijacking his dreams for my own personal satisfaction.
The shadow develops in us, according to Jolande Jacobi, because as we grow and absorb our culture, we naturally repress parts of our nature as they are not acceptable to parents or society. These grow and mature in just the way our conscious personality does, through experience and further information – except the shadow has a life under the surface like any socially unacceptable organisation, criminal activity or individual. But often it is the functions or instincts in us that date from prehistory, when present day social and sexual restraints did not have survival value, that make up a large part of the shadow.
If you can think of the characteristics you loathe in others, that is a fair picture of what you repress in yourself. The great ‘ladies man’ may hide a shadow which feels inadequate sexually. The loving Christian mother might meet a shadow full of resentment and anger at how she has been taken for granted. The rigid heterosexual might hide homosexual tendencies. Meeting the shadow through our dreams is a meeting with our own reality, which in turn enables us to look at the world realistically. If the shadow can be met it leads to wholeness.
However, because the shadow is the ‘out of sight’ area of our psyche, it also holds in it great treasure through its connection with our unconscious potential. In fact a great deal of our energy is involved in our ‘negatives’. When we meet our shadow or our fears, we are enormously more energised. Meeting the shadow and unfolding the possibilities held unexpressed is our life’s work. Without it we may never become the mature and full person we are capable of. As Prospero says of Caliban, we need to say ‘this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine’. Through this we gain not only our own greatness, whatever that might be, but also the acceptance of our common connection with humanity. If we could fully meet our shadow, we would be immune to any moral or verbal insinuations. We would already have seen this for ourselves. Finding this sort of transformation to a state beyond guilt is a task for the hero/ine who has the strength to descend into the underworld and wrestle dark creatures; to open Pandora’s Jar and deal with what is revealed.
If I’ve managed to get you curious enough to turn another page, go right ahead and I am you’ll love what you’ll find between the shadows of the page. Don’t love all of it though. That would be highly carcinogenic.