The Shadows in our Life

My sister has two daughters – and when they first moved to America some years ago, the girls were both in high school. My younger niece, is a kind and gentle soul and a gifted artist. Fairly soon into her school career she knocked up against a Southern Belle by the name of Harper. Harper took an instant dislike to my niece and this scorn was equalled and bettered by my niece.

For 6 years these girls became arch rivals and much of my niece’s news often referenced the wrong doings of Hog-Faced Harper (as her moniker became).  It mattered not that my niece was voted Homecoming Queen or that she was chosen to attend the elite North Carolina State College of Design, Hog-Faced Harper was still her nemesis, irking her into fits of maniacal retribution.

We have a similar enemy in our household: Bush-Pig Belle is often mentioned at dinner conversations and she is capable of depths of deception and a meanness of spirit unknown to humanity until now.  Please don’t mistake me, I am not one of those parents who believes my children are ‘Angels of Perfection’. I am very certain my daughter gives as good as she gets to Bush-Pig Belle. Without doubt  other families may well have nicknames for my children (hopefully less porcine in reference) demonising any one of us for wrong doings of which we may well be oblivious.

Early on in my ‘corporate’ career I had an incident with a client. The person I was dealing with had missed a deadline or failed to respond to an email and had got wrapped over the knuckles by their manager. In her ‘save face’ approach to life she had blamed the problem on me and made everything look like my failure. I was indignant. The gall she had to throw me under the bus for her own vane preservation. I ‘toute-suite’ fired off, what I thought was a firmly-worded, yet appropriate, email putting the situation right. The facts and the figures would prove me honourable and victorious against the malevolence of this so-called colleague.

My manager at the time spoke to me later that week about the email. She commented on the vitriolic tone and said, “I guess you’ve said more about you in that email than you have said anything about her”. I was taken aback because the whole point of the email was to be specific about the evil-doer. It was not about me. And then it dawned on me that my behaviour was perhaps equal to the ‘wrong-doer’ – and somewhat worse. Who was thrown under the bus now? Who looked worse than who? And more importantly, why was I entering into a battle that ended up making me look worse than someone else’s lowest form of behaviour?

It’s that sneaky Shadow. In Jungian terms, those dark parts of our selves that we cut off from our personality and spend our unexamined lives projecting onto others. Everyone of us is prone to distancing ourselves from our inner-Voldemort and playing the ‘look over there’ game when we spot poor behaviour, malpractice and depravity. What are we really pointing out when we do this? And to whom might we be pointing it out?

My dad was a great storyteller and a generous judger of the wrong doings of others. His favourite expression was, “Is that what proper people do?” When I returned home from university with long hair and copper bangles my dad asked, “Is that how proper people dress these days?” When he spotted unpolished shoes (his phobic residue from being policeman) he’d say, “Is that how proper people go to work these days?” The mismanagement of  the Zimbabwean government and the craziness of life in Africa gave him plenty of grist for his mill of properness.

After my father died, my step-mother asked my sister and I to take anything we wanted to remind us of our dad. Well what do you do in such a situation? What would you choose as an item by which you would remember someone significant in your life? And what would someone choose to represent you and what you meant in their lives? His wedding ring? That wasn’t really a symbol of happiness and I sensed it may carry a curse. A tie or cuff links? Well yes, to some extent that can act as a memory-keeper, but it didn’t seem to capture my dad. Eventually we both chose a crystal whiskey glass

My dad was a great attender of sports clubs and his funeral was peopled by all his old drinking buddies from his days as a policeman, a sportsman and then a business man in Zimbabwe. He would regale people with his stories of being proper and his encounters with the un-properness of others for many an hour. He had quite a reputation in Zimbabwe, and no matter what restaurant or club he frequented the waiting staff all knew that my father liked whiskey to the depth of three fingers with three cubes of ice. Not two; not four; only three. That’s the proper way to drink whiskey and only rubbish people would water it down or mix it with other liquids.

There is a macabre irony that my sister and I chose the very receptacle that delivered the poison that ultimately killed him. Now both my sister and I have a place in our homes where there is a photo of our father and his whiskey glass containing some flowers. Rather than being a momento mori (reminder that you too will die) this display creates a different connection for me.

When I look at the glass of flowers I see how something used for one thing can become something else. Judging others as un-proper or Hog-Faced and like a Bush-Pig are just opportunities to recognise what we don’t want to see in ourselves. My shadow is always there I just don’t always acknowledge it. I guarantee you this though: when I am thinking, “that person’s a fool, – they are , mean, deceptive, vane, arrogant” – whatever un-proper adjective I might choose, chances are I am committing an act of projection.

All life’s a mirror really, reflecting back to us what we want to see, what we invent and what we hope not to see. So when I look at my dad’s whiskey glass I see those parts of my father that live in me.

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