Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Shadow Knows...

From What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes

     In 1968, while I was still in Vietnam, I recorded in my journal the first instance of a recurring nightmare that, along with similar dreams, took me over twenty years to lay to rest.
     Somehow the gook* and I were left isolated right next to the river. I had only my kabar and it looked as if he was unarmed. He saw me and we went at each other. My kabar was dull from chopping branches, so instead of slashing I tried to stab him in the throat. I hit him someplace but didn't stop him and then we were locked together and rolling into the muddy tepid water. I found out then that he wasn't unarmed. In his right hand were two razor blades. He got me right across the wrist in a slash, and in the warm water I could feel my blood draining, mixing with the warmth around it, robbing me of energy, of life. I stabbed him in the Adam's apple and felt the hard resistance like a carrot. The knife was too dull to tear his throat, so I pulled it out and stabbed again and again in a mad race against the blood mixing, mixing in the warm brown water. Finally I could see no longer. My mind whirled. My body twisted and spun after my blood, joining it in a dance of entropy, cooling and spinning to the universal semi-warmth of the river.
     The doc pulled me out and I awoke on the bank with an IV tube in my arm.
     This dream is not about Vietnam. It's about what got me to Vietnam. I've been fighting that "gook," the enemy inside me, in one form or another , for most of my life. It represents the parts of me I despise. Not only don't I want other people to see them; I also don't want to see them myself. These are my weak parts, my indecisive parts, my violent parts, and probably a few parts so deeply buried I can't name them. The enemy, however, pops up in various forms in dreams. Sometimes he's a shiftless vagrant. Sometimes he's a frightening murderer or a crazy person.
     Sometimes real people, not just dreams, catch this enemy within, acting like an unrecognized reflection in a mirror. Rather than realize it's my own reflection, I prefer to think that what I see is really them. This causes troubling encounters. For example, if I see fat people I immediately think badly of them. I myself was a bit fat as a child. I got over that through waging a fierce war against that fat little boy, training hard, running a lot, playing the toughest sports. But I still like to eat ice cream and lie around, so the fat little boy is still with me, stuffed inside where I don't have to think about him anymore. I can have a negative reaction to a fat person, but when I start to remember that fat little boy I used to be, my reaction becomes more neutral. Eventually it took certain painful war experiences, represented and played out in the repeating dream I just described, to finally make up a nightmare strong enough to get my attention and make me realize that something wasn't altogether sound at home. There was indeed an enemy within.
     Everyone has his or her equivalent of "the gook inside." It's what Carl Jung called the shadow. People who say they don't have one have an even bigger one.
     That NVA soldier and I were fighting by the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between North and South Vietnam. This is the dividing line between this world, the world where everyone, especially me, expects I'll be good at football and get a powerful high-paying job, and the other world, the world where I hide, and then forget, the parts of me I despise.
     Although we all have shadows, we all have different ones. My own shadow has many masks. I'm a strong man - my shadow is a weak effeminate whiner. I'm a hard worker - "Sarge" visits me in dreams, a lazy, marijuana-smoking deserter and lover. He's got two sensuous sleek women friends. I'm not afraid to take on a challenge - my shadow constantly fears failing. What better way to fight these shadows than to join the Marines and prove to myself that they don't exist? After I left the Marines, I found other similar things to do, over and over again. I made myself enough brilliant light to keep the shadows at bay and blind myself in the process.
     This dream soldier is slashing my wrists with a razor blade, an image of suicide. The more I try to kill him, the more my own blood drains out of me. When I returned from Vietnam I lost some old and dear friends and one woman I loved. I lost them because they said I had become cold. When asked how I was, I'd answer, "I'm cool." And I was. I was holding down a full colonel's billet at Headquarters Marine Corps* and had enough medals to excuse any wayward behavior, and I took full advantage of the situation. Everything looked fine. But I'd died inside.
     ...Shadow issues come around and around. There is no defeating the shadow. We have to live with it. It is part of us. But having this shadow is neither bad nor good, although it is very troublesome. If I have lazy Sarge in there, smoking marijuana every day, lying on a couch, this hurts nobody. It's when I start screaming at my kid because he is loafing on the couch, just the way I'd like to loaf myself, that someone gets hurt. Then what I'm doing, because of shadow, is bad. I'll never get rid of Sarge. Calling Sarge bad and trying to stuff him even further down in my psychic baggage will only mean it's more likely I'll scream at my kid or anyone else, people on welfare, for example, who "catch" my Sarge when he pops out.

Reading this passage, I think to my own shadows - the demons I'm trying to exorcise every time I get under the barbell. I think to the shadows of all those who point at others with weight and fitness issues and say "Well I did it! What's YOUR problem?" When I see TV celebrity trainers screaming at the people they are supposedly saving from a life of obesity, I wonder what shadows they are projecting on their charges...


Petr said...

Very interesting. I believe it's necessary to accept 'shadows' inside us, not to fight them. Yes there is a lazy kid inside me, because you know, that's the fact. If I would call the exorcist for 'Sarge', if I'll fight, he would fight back harder and harder.
It's just part what I am and that makes me fighting against myself. Which is indeed suicide.
accept shadows, understand why I got angry at the first place (and get to know my shadow who is responsible for it).

Boris said...

I think we can work with the shadows without succumbing to them. The problem, as I see it, gets worse when we try to deny their existence.