"One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness visible.”
– Carl Jung
My friend Tai Zhou is in his kitchen. He has been making dumplings since 6:00 AM. I have finished eating breakfast and have been thinking about killing myself since 6:17 AM.
My thoughts of suicide are neither pressing nor urgent, they are evanescent notions. The shimmer across my mind as a simple statement, “I should just kill myself.” I respond with a “Just be quiet, Phil” or, when I am in a more unsettled mood, “Shut up!”
My many conversations with Tai have provided an understanding of why he gets up so early to make dumplings and why he enjoys it so much. Having confronted his shadow self, he now draws from a deep well of energy that feeds his enthusiasm and hones his skill as a dumpling artist. My situation is just another fight with my demons. I always win, as you can see from the fact I am writing this story. I have been doing battle with them since I first became aware of myself as a separate entity in a sometimes-hostile world. This misperception of separateness is where most, if not all, demons are born.
I was born in the back seat of Yellow Cab No. 754. The cab driver, Steve Kish, earned a tip for sensing the situation was critical and driving to the nearest hospital where a doctor joined us in the cab for the final birthing labors. Steve received a quarter for his trouble and I made the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer under the headline “Tiny Timm is Born in Taxi Hospital”. My fifteen minutes of fame realized in my first hour on the planet. Although my assigned guardian angel joined us in the cab, the original demon assigned to me was not expecting my birth in a taxi (probably drinking in some demonic bar) and this other dreaded demon of suicidal ideation jumped the line and took his place. He looks a lot like Sobek, the Egyptian god of the Nile, an unpredictable deity who sometimes allies himself with the forces of Chaos. I know him and his tricks.
I believe that we all have demons to wrestle and the thorny wilderness where we battle them is in our solitude. They are aspects of ourselves we believe to be unacceptable and seek to hide. These demons are shaped into form by a secret or a fear we are unwilling to share. They love darkness. If we are strong enough to face them, we can pin them to the ground and stare into them. In doing so, we confront our dark side and see ourself beyond the false social mask we present to the world. It can be terrifying. If we look hard enough, we will see the Rape of Nanking, the Holocaust, the Massacre of Amritsar, the Mongols exterminating all males in Bukhara ‘taller than a wheel’, the Rwanda Hotel, the Armenian genocide, Wounded Knee, and today’s persecution of the Uyghurs. In the foreground of these and other atrocities lies the field where our own demons dwell. If not confronted, they draw us deeper into the woods where more dangerous demons await among the collective shadows of mankind.
What I have come to understand is that we are all capable of such heinous behavior, to be drawn deeper into the woods. When this fact is realized and accepted, the darkness is made visible and I can find room inside for things I thought were alien to me. I see my own shadows in the luminous darkness and I can begin to accept all my various potentials, both good and bad, lovable and despicable, which leads me to a more authentic self as I surrender to this new reality. This is an authenticity that clears the path toward self-realization and wholeness. Although I have tried to cast these demons out, I have failed. They are an integral part of me and, as such, can only be reconciled not exorcized. Trying to engineer the unruly parts out of our lives is doomed to fail and just creates another way to feel bad. I have found that while all of me is not likeable, light and shadow must always dwell together and both provide a perspective for my journey into wholeness.
Some of you might disagree or object.
“What’s he talking about? I haven’t any demons!”
Of course not, my little darling. You are one of a select number of perfect angels come to earth living seemingly amazing lives. But who cannot recall, without a shiver, people who lied about not having demons? Then, after having gone to bed with them, you wake up the next morning and find yourself surrounded by legions of demons; yours, theirs, and others left over like stains from a previous guest.
But perhaps I am too harsh. You may be among the celestial blessed who neither harbor such thoughts or think themselves capable of such behaviors. Many people pretend they haven’t any demons, that they have no shadow self, until they get blindsided. In a moment of unawareness, something happens which overwhelms their sense of who they are and they find their ordinary psychological identity and defenses inadequate. A casual remark, a sudden illness, a fit of anger, a disastrous turn of events and something inside cracks. You tumble, you trip, you laugh to yourself. This is not happening. I am fine. But inside a fire is raging, something is wrong and you know it. You make strenuous efforts to deny this and move on, but to go against the shadow is to go against yourself. It will come again; our shadow self demands to be acknowledged and must be integrated if we are to become whole. Clinging to incomplete notions of who we are and trying to effect a cure by our own efforts and psychological strategies leaves us stagnant and beholden to the darkness when it appears.
Although this is an inner process, the support of others can help us understand our shadows as we struggle to accept an emerging new reality. We sense the possibility of a wholeness that embraces a more accurate and complete understanding of who we are.
Tai Zhou has been a support and blessing in dealing with my demons. He is not a counselor, therapist, or psychologist. He is a friend who also has demons and our friendship has been built, in part, upon sharing and exposing our demons to each another. Finding a courage within, we trade stories and fears. He understands. It is liberating to let them out, particularly with a fellow traveler who is willing to share their own struggles. The curative power of such an exchange cannot be overstated. We find that we are not alone and that our demons are not as powerful as they pretend to be. They abhor the light of day and open conversation.
Tai always greets me with a big grin and a Nǐ hǎo - (你好). I respond with an American accented Nǐ hǎo and his face lights up and he laughs. I had shared with him that I studied a semester of Chinese at Johns Hopkins University and ever since he strives to teach me a new word or correct my pronunciation every time we meet. However hard he tries to teach and however hard I try to learn, my entire vocabulary seems limited to Nǐ hǎo (hello), Zàijiàn - 再见 (goodbye), and most importantly Xièxiè - 谢谢 (thanks).
I am usually in a hurry when shopping or buying food. I consider it a task to be completed as efficiently and effectively as possible, but when I visit Tai’s little grocery shop, it’s different. I stop mainly for his home-made dumplings but I rarely get out of there in under twenty minutes. Tai loves to chat and even with other customers waiting we find time for meaningful conversation.
Tai has a doctorate in engineering. He shared a translation of one of his papers “Bayesian Convolutional Coding for Image Resolution with Finite-Time Analysis” with me. I tried to read it but found it way out of my league. He left China under circumstances that he would never fully reveal, only hint at. As I said, Tai has his demons and hides them quite well under a welcoming demeanor. He is happy to be making dumplings and glad to be out of China and the world of Bayesian calculations.
Tai and I have both traded the world of technology and computation for simpler activities. I grow things and Tai makes things. Although our lives are simpler, we still face challenges to our everyday integrity from the demons who pester us. We have faced some hard truths about ourselves and are better for it. We have taken to heart the idea that one should keep your angels close but your demons even closer.
Wrestling with demons is an apt metaphor. There’s a well-known biblical story of Jacob’s wrestling with an angel the night before he is to reunite with his brother Esau. Jacob has not seen his brother since he stole Esau’s birthright and ran away in fear of Esau’s revenge. Jacob has tried to forget, to pretend, to deny his transgression, but this unpleasant truth is a demon which haunts him and he cannot be whole, cannot become the father of Israel, until he faces it. Gathering his courage, Jacob wrestles with the angel/demon and it is only after his struggle that he is blessed. Along with the blessing, the wrestling leaves him with a wounded hip and he will ever after walk with a limp.
I too have been wounded in wrestling my demons and that floating murmur “I should just kill myself” is my limp. Such injuries are scars and become markers of our spiritual growth. We cannot undo past misdeeds, but we can confront them and learn from them. We can heal. Although we may limp, we become our more authentic self and are more compassionate toward others who strive to come to terms with their own shadows.
A few years ago, Tai moved to California to be closer to his daughter. In one of our last conversations before he moved, he asked, “Why do we love the light and fear the darkness?” In answer, we agreed that all life is a mix of light and darkness and to love one and fear the other is to deny half of ourselves. Our greatest fears are encountered both in the bright day and the dark night. They are fueled by a self-centeredness that seeks constant approval, compulsive behaviors, and frantic efforts to attend to a self-image that seems to always require mending as we present our face to the world.
I have not spoken with Tai since he left for California and likely will never speak with him again. The purpose of our chance meeting and the resulting friendship was realized and we both grew from the encounter. It’s like that with many people in my life who have shown up to provide an insight or a wake-up call and then moved on. There’s no need for protracted conversation afterwards. A simple Xièxiè is all that’s required.
The writer/poet Charles Bukowski (“Tales of Ordinary Madness”) was a man tormented by demons and who worshiped at the altar of personal excess, violence, and madness. I have been a fan of his poetry and writing for some time. Although not an enviable role model as to how one might live, he was an inspired writer. In one of his pieces, he writes; “Don’t fight with your demons. Your demons are here to teach you lessons. Sit down with your demons and have a drink and a chat and learn their names and talk about the burns on their fingers and scratches on their ankles. Some of them are very nice.”
I have fought my demons and I have also sat with them and listened to their rant. They tell the same stories over and over with the same intent. They tell me of my mistakes, failed relationships, shameful acts, and things left undone. I listen as a dog might listen to his master, head cocked to the side, pretending to understand but not really listening at all, just waiting for him to finish. I know my shadows and have worked to integrate them into my conscious awareness where I can watch them operate. It's been a humbling in to who I truly am. Having done so, I am no longer afraid of the dark and I don’t trip over what is behind me as often as I once did. I have no expectations of becoming perfect. It seems to me that life is not about perfection, it’s about wholeness.