For a while there, prior to the start of the pandemic, one of my very closest friends, John, would regularly get these awesome refrigerator magnets for me from a craft fair. They all featured a pithy or gritty quotation, something he knew I’d appreciate. My favorite one says, “Sometimes I wrestle with my demons. Sometimes we just snuggle.” He knows me better than just about anyone. He’s well acquainted with some aspects of my dark side, as I am acquainted with some aspects of his. When they show up in any conversation we are having, there is no shame nor secrecy. They are greeted like dear old friends, welcomed in. We often find ourselves laughing hysterically with and/or about them. We are well aware of how lucky we are to be able to do this because usually, all of these feelings are unwelcomed and hidden from others. In fact, sometimes they are even hidden from the individuals who possess them, as we far too often we choose to repress them rather than snuggle with them.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past month, as issues of childhood trauma resurfaced. I became even more cognizant of it when Aidan, my older son, texted me on Sunday night, telling me that Will Smith had just slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars. John was the first person I called, after trying to confirm the accuracy of this information via Twitter, of course. I knew John, who has a love for theater and film, would be watching the Academy Awards. He would have all of the details. John was actually baffled and confused. He said just as it happened his TV started to act up; later we learned that ABC was working to edit the transmission. He, like I, also wondered if it had been a preplanned skit of some sort. Scripted. A joke. He went back to watching the show, and I, having no real interest in anything Hollywood, at least not enough to lose any sleep, went to bed, noting that I would follow up on the Smith/Rock slap story the next morning.
Two days later, it is still headline news, still trending, still the topic of many conversations. On Monday, my students and I wrote about it, as our journaling prompt, and then talked about it in class, they were as divided as the internet. Was Will Smith justified in hitting Chris Rock to protect his wife’s feelings? Was it ever right to physically assault anyone? In addition to discussing it with my class, it has been the topic of some pretty deep conversations with others, including a number of academics and my therapist. A lot of these people contend that what Will Smith did was wrong, outrageous, and classless. I do not support violence nor the actions that Smith chose on Sunday night, but I do think it provides us all with a unique opportunity for some very real discussion about the facades we work to upkeep and the shadow selves we work overtime to conceal, even from ourselves, and even in our reflective writing. After all, who among us has not, at one time or another, wished they could shake, hit, punch, or yell at someone else? And who among us would be unwilling to answer that question openly and honestly?
I reach for my notebook daily, often several times a day, jotting down notes, ideas, my thoughts, and my secrets. I’ve done this, in various iterations, for decades. I am probably more courageously vulnerable than most people choose to be when they write expressively. And yet,
even with that, you’d find very little in my notebooks that truly revealed my shadow self, even though I am well aware of its existence. This awareness allows me to look at Will Smith, not as a classless monster, but as a human being who lost it, and by “it” I mean his ability to repress his shadow self/dark side.
I know some of you are raising an eyebrow, asking yourself whether or not I condone Will Smith’s behavior. My answer is an unequivocal and resounding “No.” I do not think it is okay to slap people who offend us or offend someone that we love unless it is an act of self-defense. We have laws and rules against that. We start teaching those rules to children, as soon as they are old enough to understand language, which is also around the time that they start hitting people, if they are the hitting-people kind, as it is our natural tendency to express many behaviors that, in civilized society we have deemed uncivilized – acts of aggression being just one. The desire to hit people or be physically aggressive is a human tendency.
So, why is it then, that we are so afraid to know our dark sides, our shadow sides? Why is it that we choose to look at people who snap and act aggressively, commit adultery, become addicted to a substance, or do something else unseemly, as monsters, and so unlike ourselves that we cannot identify. Instead, so many of us clutch our pearls, as though we’ve never had a thought that has been deemed inappropriate. We choose to look at these things as personality flaws, instead of as the natural tendencies that many or all of us have, and that we have agreed we will try to control, so that we may live together more effectively? Our rules and laws are the external negative reinforcements that keep us in check, that save us from ourselves. I suppose, then, that social acceptance is the positive reinforcement that keeps us all in check.
Ah, so therein is the answer to my question, I suppose. We want to be accepted by one another, by others in society, so we all claim to not be like “that,” whatever negative quality the possessor of “that” may have. I understand wanting social acceptance. To a large extent, social acceptance is a matter of survival. It is essential to our well-being. We need it. However, it goes deeper than that. We hide many truths from ourselves. We repress our own thoughts in our own expressive writing. We fail to get to know ourselves – our full selves, which includes our dark side, our shadow self, and our demons because social acceptance has become self-acceptance. These social constructs are influencing our internal thought, and I don’t think it’s for the better. I believe that true self-awareness, self-love, and self-worth can come only from the acknowledgment and familiarity with our full selves. To that end, I encourage you to consider this the next time you put pen to paper. I must do the same.
P.S. I was taking a walk today and realized I would be remiss not to address a few additional things that were illuminated by the events of Sunday night. Firstly, I do not condone what happened nor do I condone violence. I am not #teamwill nor am I #teamchris. I think both men displayed poor judgment. It was traumatizing for everyone, including the innocent viewers at home. Additionally, by using this as an example of shadow self or one’s dark side, my comments do not speak to the many other issues that the confrontation brought to light – including but not limited to, trauma, masculine views about hair and femininity, patriarchal views about women, toxic masculinity and the use of violence to express strength and protection, the protection of Black women, the persistent and perpetuated stereotypes of Black people as aggressive and without manners, the fact that the show went on and Hollywood ignored trauma to its host and viewers, the obscene display of privilege (any of us would have been arrested had we physically assaulted another person in public), and the list goes on and on. By using the incident as an example of the urge to be aggressive as a human and normal trait or tendency, in order to support the exploration of one’s dark side, I don’t want anyone to think I’ve ignored all the rest.
What happened on Sunday was a lot. There is a lot to unpack there. But, I do think that greater self-awareness and acknowledgment of our dark sides may enable us to better cope with them, and perhaps avoid having them show up in public spaces to embarrass us and traumatize others.