Thinking twice about Relationships: How Can we Learn to See the Whole Picture?

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Tony Bevan. Heads Horizon. Copyright Tony Bevan.

Courtesy Ben Brown Fine Arts, London

 

‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’

F. Scott Fitzgerald

 

Keeping two opposite, contradictory views in mind at the same time is a difficult task; however, if we are able to do this, the rewards are manifold. Such thinking is surely situated at the heart of creativity. Yet, so often, people opt for one side or another, choosing to ignore the fact that the world, and life, are just not that simple.

For example, when a couple divorce, how often do friends and family take sides? In actuality, marital breakdown is about two people; it is an interaction. Even though it might appear as if one partner is ‘at fault,’ that partner is always unconsciously expressing something for the other. 

The couple represent two parts of a whole; they created the entity of the marriage and they both have a part in its demise. Apportioning blame to one partner or another represents a way of thinking that is limited and incomplete. It is the product of a one-sided mindset, a way of thinking that cannot recognise the validity of two different viewpoints. The result is half-truths and biased versions of reality.

‘My experience with couples in conflict over divergent subjective experiences inspired what I call the “You’re Both Right Intervention”: The therapist points out that while both people seem to assume that there can be only one correct way to see a situation, in fact, both can be simultaneously correct. When making this postmodern point, I mention a situation, familiar to all, of two people reacting very differently to the identical movie.’

(Nielsen)

Partial ways of thinking have their roots within our own minds, acknowledging only one side of ourselves and denying the existence of the ‘bad’ side. Jung called this our ‘shadow’ side, a part of us all:

‘Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.’ Jung’s shadow refers to the darker parts of the personality of which we tend to be unaware.

If we are remain in denial about the existence of our own shadow, we will tend to project that darkness onto others.

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Rubens. ‘Old Woman and Boy with Candles.’

‘When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.’ Ursula Le Guin

Such paranoid ways of thinking involve unconscious projection onto the other of one’s own unwanted or unacceptable fears. This involves the mechanism of splitting, of black and white thinking, where the world is divided into people who are wholly good, (often great, powerful leaders), and the utterly evil, who will be vilified and scapegoated as outsiders.

Condemnation of another as dishonest, grasping or lazy might, for a short time at least, leave one feeling smugly virtuous. However, the negative feelings inside, unresolved and ignored, will return, ready to be projected out onto some other unwitting victim.

This way of thinking abhors difference, hates, yet needs ‘the enemy.’ Then we are unable to see the self in the other, cannot recognise that in all of us lies the potential for evil.

There is an old saying which urges us to remember that ‘when you point the finger at someone, remember that there are three fingers pointing back at you.’

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‘The Gossips.’

Thus, instead of regarding the other as all bad and the self as good or faultless, we might pause a moment to look at how easy it is to denounce another, rather than to admit that all is not perfect inside oneself. The Spanish proverb ‘An optimist is a person who has a depressed friend’ illustrates my point perfectly. It is easier to deny one’s own pessimism if one can focus on another’s depression or misery.

If we can first make a connection between the various inner aspects of ourselves, begin to admit into consciousness thoughts and feelings previously repressed and denied, then we might get in touch with the stranger inside, the part of ourselves hitherto unconsciously regarded as alien.

 

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In his book, Strangers, Gods and Monsters,  Kearney refers to the fact that ‘foreigners’ and strangers are most liable to be burdened with the negative projections of others:
‘The ‘alien’ is revealed accordingly as that most occluded part of ourselves, considered so unspeakable that we externalise it onto others. The more foreign someone is the more eligible they are to carry the shadow cast by our unconscious. Strangers become perfect foils since we can act out on them the hostility we feel towards our own strangers within.’ (Kearney)

In next week’s post, we will continue to develop this theme, with special reference to hospitality, immigrants and ‘the other.’

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