The Valley of the Shadow of Death

As a child, I didn’t understand this metaphor of “the shadow of death”. I suppose I had some vague notion of God protecting me from physical danger. With time I came to understand the truth. My confusion was not simply that of a child. Metaphors and parables are trickier than they seem. They touch on something innately paradoxical about us, and about the way we think.

It is said that we are defined by our choices. The problem is, most of us spend most of our lives not realizing how many choices we make every day.

Carl Jung spoke of the persona: the face that we present to the world, the self we imagine ourselves to be, the self we want others to believe us to be.

One lesson to take from Jung’s writings: lying to others is really only possible if you are already lying to yourself. That is a dangerous game, and one played by far too many people.

Another lesson Jung offers is this: good actors are doing something magical and self-transformative. The wearing of masks, or the donning of other personae, is an ancient and honored part of human culture. The urge to do so lies somewhere near the oldest part of our human brains. The trick is to wear the mask consciously and conscientiously, not in an ongoing state of existential panic.

Carina Chocano writes:

In starting to lay out the possible uses of regret, [Janet Landman, author of Regret: The Persistence of the Possible,] quotes William Faulkner. ‘The past,’ he wrote in 1950, ‘is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Great novels, Landman points out, are often about regret: about the life-changing consequences of a single bad decision (say, marrying the wrong person, not marrying the right one, or having let love pass you by altogether) over a long period of time. Sigmund Freud believed that thoughts, feelings, wishes, etc, are never entirely eradicated, but if repressed ‘[ramify] like a fungus in the dark and [take] on extreme forms of expression’. The denial of regret, in other words, will not block the fall of the dominoes. It will just allow you to close your eyes and clap your hands over your ears as they fall, down to the very last one.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that people’s greatest regrets revolve around education, work, and marriage, because the decisions we make around these issues have long-term, ever-expanding repercussions. The point of regret is not to try to change the past, but to shed light on the present. This is traditionally the realm of the humanities. What novels tell us is that regret is instructive. And the first thing regret tells us (much like its physical counterpart — pain) is that something in the present is wrong.

The take-away: whistling in the dark is no good if you are trying to distract yourself from how scared you are. Only whistle in the dark as a means of echo-location, as a way of finding your way through the darkness. Pretending everything is okay when things are clearly wrong is not bravery: it is cowardice.

Jung also believed that people are at their most hopeless and most desperate right when they are ready to shed an old version of themselves and start anew. But that is precisely when most of us refuse to let go of our older selves, and so avoid the process of change. That is “the shadow of death”, the feeling of dread that you are about to be extinguished, that all the things you are, and all the things you hold dear, are about to be ruined.

So: put on a face for the world, but fill it full of you, not of the self you imagined as a child. Wear your mask with full awareness of what you do. Let it be a conscious choice. Don’t get trapped by the idea of who you thought you had to be.

And don’t tell yourself that you are not afraid of the dark, or that the darkness is not even there. You’re not fooling anyone.

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