Monday, July 21, 2003

Devil or Angel

For anyone familiar with Kobe Bryant, the Lakers and the NBA, his indictment on the charge of sexual assault is mind-boggling. For those who aren't, or don't really care, the charge and the trial will become something more symbolic, or else the usual perverse form of entertainment these public incidents of private travails become in the tabloid cable TV talk radio universe. The situation is rife with potential candidates for symbols, with race and gender likely to move to the top past the current contrast (both more and less than meets the eye) of world celebrity from the big city and unknown teenager from the smallest of towns.

But one bifurcation is already emerging, thanks in part to Bryant's admission that he committed adultery with the woman in question, and that's: good guy or bad guy, role model or degenerate, hero or villain, devil or angel.

I don't know if Kobe Bryant is guilty of the charge of forcing sex on the woman whose name we do not know. I believe in a person's innocence until proven guilty, and additionally, I would be surprised if he is guilty. The charge is a matter of law, and will be settled in the legal system. Forcing sex on someone is wrong. But as much as is known about the situation so far leads me to believe that the moral responsibilities will never be clear to anyone but the people involved, if indeed it is ever clear to them. Right now it seems likely that Bryant believes the sex was consensual, and right now the alleged victim believes it was forced. The scary possibility is that they each thought the same thing while it was happening.

Bryant has already admitted to error and very bad judgment. Some people profess terrible disappointment in Kobe because he admitted adultery. Some columnists bray about the fallen idol, the Mr. Clean, Mr. Perfect Image now in tatters, oh how the mighty are fallen. (A friend of mine who is a gossip columnist once suggested that there are really only a few stories people want to hear about stars, and they form a neat sort of arc: The Struggle to Succeed, the Mighty Fall, the Comeback.)

We may insist that our mythic figures follow simple two-dimensional story lines, but as Kobe Bryant pointed out in his press conference, he's a human being. Our insistence that celebrities be one thing or the other is part of what we think should constitute our ideal self.

"Devil or angel?" the old song asks; dozens of old songs ask. We can't admit to ourselves that we are both. Sure, in our American Christian culture, we are good but have sin inside us, which must be rooted out when the devil makes us do bad things. It's that attitude that has turned so many psychological insights into the kind of victimization litanies that earn the ire if not the charity of cultural analysts.

Even the Judeo part of our dominant heritage shades this way. There is no actual Devil in the Hebrew Old Testament, says author Amelia Wilson in her book called The Devil, but there is a figure called "ha/satan" who is more of an adversary than a wholly evil entity.

That's a little better, for there's some symbolic sense that we aren't helpless, we can choose, and we contend against "someone" whose position we consciously oppose. Still, there's the sense that Satan is outside us, and that he's an enemy out to destroy us.

A more useful concept, it seems to me, is the Jungian idea of the Shadow. The shadow is everything we are that we reject in our daily life. It includes being too good for our own good, but mostly it's the dark stuff, that has remained unconscious for perhaps any of several reasons. For example, the Shadow holds emotions, energies, actions, that either once had survival value in our genetic history, or it is the impulse and energy itself that had and still has survival value, but it got linked to behavior that is not beneficial to us now. Not to mention harmful to others.

The Shadow has several advantages as a concept. First, it is inside us (though like all aspects of the unconscious it is at least partially shared with our culture, society, our species). Second, in itself it is morally neutral. Third, it is not all bad. The energies of the unconscious are vital to us as functioning, creating, passionate human beings.

Eruptions from the unconscious feel natural; powerful feelings from the Shadow can propel us to commit bad acts. We want to be good, and sometimes we are bad. ("Sin" as James Hillman tells us originated as an archery term, meaning "missing the mark." Or missing the jump shot.) The Jungian remedy is consciousness. You become conscious of exactly what is in your Shadow, how it manifests, and then you choose: you find ways to control and channel those impulses, without denying them and calling them evil.

It's more complicated than that, of course. There are lots of books on the Shadow, but one of the most useful I've found is also one of the shortest: Owning Your Own Shadow by Robert A. Johnson. "Heaven and skid row are separated only by an act of consciousness," Johnson writes. But he also suggests ways of expressing the Shadow, of using Shadow energies, and keeping yourself in balance.

And that's the key, and the key benefit of the concept. One of the most effective ways of inviting the Shadow to suddenly erupt in a really bad act is to deny it, is to tell yourself you've conquered it, you're a really good person now; in fact, you're perfect.

Maybe that's the lesson in that celebrity story, that part of the arc: the mighty is fallen. Kobe Bryant seems like an admirable young man---intelligent, thoughtful, perceptive, emotionally expressive, morally centered, well-mannered and cultured. But he probably also cultivated an image of the perfect hero. He reportedly was insulted when a reporter joked about the opportunities for sexual misbehavior on a trip to Brazil; he would never commit adultery, he said.

Then he did. That doesn't mean he committed rape, or even that he had the impulse to be violent. It also doesn't mean he's a hypocrite, that he has lost all credibility, that he's not a fundamentally good person who has worked hard at it under pressures most of us will never comprehend. But it is an object lesson for all of us. The more we deny Kobe Bryant's humanity, the more we are probably denying our own.

At his press conference, Bryant sounded like he'd learned this. He spoke of being furious with himself, and humiliated. He interjected the statement that "I'm a human being just like everybody else. I mourn. I cry, like everybody else." Mourning would not seem to be at issue, but it's an interesting and suggestive choice. It is in mourning and going through the valleys, our private trips through hell, that we get in touch with our humanity. That the image of Kobe Bryant will never be the same may not be a bad thing, for him or for us.

(I realize this intepretation depends on granting Kobe credibility, that he's being honest. I am assuming he is. He's no Linda Tripp, saying "I'm you." He's saying who he is.)

But it isn't just the mighty who have a mighty fall once in awhile. James Hillman suggests that one reason the infighting in academia, or among poets or environmentalists, is often so vicious and ugly, worse than politicians who vilify each other and then go have dinner together, is that people in these groups are used to believing themselves supremely virtuous, whereas politicians know what they are. But the Shadow won't be denied.

Jung chiseled a motto in stone above his doorway, that said something like : "Invited or not, the gods will be present." The gods he meant weren't just the good gods. They were the very good and very bad gods of India, the mixed blessings (at best) of the Greek and Roman gods. (They include our internal furies, that can make us furious with ourselves.) We have all those gods inside us, just as sure as we're made of atoms. And invited or not, the Shadow will enter.

It seems to me that our societal refusal to admit the presence of good and evil, of devil and angel within each of us, invites criminal behavior as a consequence of our hypocrisy. You can catch a glimpse of that kind of energy working through psychopaths sometimes; they sneer at society for not admitting its evils, because we can't admit we can be good and still do evil. In some ways they express the violence we deny.

We do admit it indirectly. We love the outlaw hero. We root for the Dionysian energy to be expressed in a movie like "The Banger Sisters" or in the Dionysian rock stars that film references, especially Jim Morrison (and there has hardly ever been a more clearly Dionysian movie than Oliver Stone's "The Doors.") But we want to keep it at a safe distance.

That can be part of a healthy approach to the Shadow. But it can't be our whole agenda. Other cultures have had much more respect for the forces of nature, including the forces within us. The words "terrible" and "awesome" express different shades of that respect: each also means the other. Those forces work on us and in us, but we have these tools: consciousness, knowledge, honesty, discernment, courage, responsibility, conscience, respect, sorrow, regret, patience, joy. In this sense, we are neither devil nor angel because we are both.

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