Everybody’s Black Swan

“For the good man to realize
that it is better to be whole
than to be good
is to enter on a straight and
narrow path compared to which
his previous rectitude
was flowery license.”

~  John Middleton Murry (1889-1957),
English literary critic


In the psychological thriller movie, Black Swan, Natalie Portman gives a tour de force performance as a shy, prim and proper ballerina who tries very hard to be perfect as she prepares for her role as Swan Queen in Tchailovsky’s Swan Lake ballet.

There’s only one problem. She’s human. The black swan of her repressed ambition, jealousy, passion, and rage undoes her.

Right now a black swan swims in the backwaters of your unconscious and mine. Depth psychologist Carl Jung called it the “shadow“. It’s the weaknesses, imperfections, faults, and instincts which we hide from others and ourselves by repressing them into our unconscious. The saint’s shadow is the sinner within; the sinner’s shadow is the saint within. The shadow or black swan is the disowned part of our psychological wholeness.

Despite our every effort to be good, here and there the black swan’s persistent beak pokes through the chinks in our goodness. We get into a snit, because someone takes too long in the grocery line. We grab a parking space for which someone was waiting. We go into a rage, because someone cuts us off in traffic.

From childhood we are trained to fit into society as “good” persons. Yet being socialized is only an initial stage of development. Being “good” by denying, cutting off, repressing parts of ourselves seems simply a matter of psychological tidiness (see also The Perils of Trying to Perfect Ourselves Leunig Cartoon).

Yet life and you and I are more complex than tidiness. Without preference life sustains both the month-old puppy that leaps towards you with unbounded love and also the eagle which sweeps down and carries the puppy away in its talons. The special forces soldier who by night lovingly twirls the curl of his sleeping 5-year-old daughter, by day “offs” others’ children protesting in the square.

If left unacknowledged, the black swan will undo us. The gay basher will be discovered in a back seat dalliance of the same sex. The preacher will be found in a motel with a prostitute. Yet the black swan’s beak does not poke to attack, but rather to fed with the light of our awareness. Why? Within us resides a psychological drive to individuate (to realize one’s authentic Self) which is a stage of development beyond simply being “good” or socialized.

In part individuation results from our reconciling ourselves to the givenness of all that we are: the light and the dark. As we acknowledge the black swan, we free it from the backwaters of the unconscious. Neither do we act out, nor do we hide out. We strive for the moral courage to be neither better, nor worse than we are, but rather as we are. No longer do we labor at goodness, but rather at psychological wholeness.

Carl Jung warned that if societies do not attend to their collective shadow, then genocidal persecutions and world wars can result. Our era of failing institutions and broken social covenants is fraught with the dangers of unleashed psychological and social chaos. We each can do our part to safeguard each other by integrating our own black swans.

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