Facing the shadow during a pandemic of fear

If we can explore the fear within our collective shadow, it can lead us towards transforming our increasingly troubled world.

To understand both the beauty and the darkness of our world, a collective change in our lives and attitudes is needed.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

Over these past weeks, especially for those in Singapore with Indian connections, the unending pandemic distress and India's high number of fatalities have brought new anxiety.

Just when it seemed glimmers of hope were discerned, not only has Singapore returned to partial restrictions, but also, for many Indian nationals here, hardly a day passes without news from their homeland of yet another death. Even if one is not individually close to them, many of these fatalities are at the end of a chain of relationships chillingly near the personal domain.

Some countries, such as Britain, with large swathes of their population now vaccinated, appear to be on the upswing and emerging from lockdown, but others seem to be spiralling downwards.

No matter where one lives in the world, everyone is asking - when will this end and also, why is this catastrophe happening?

Depending on one's philosophy or religious conviction, the answer seems to be either that the pandemic is the wrath of God visited upon a degraded and unprincipled world; the unleashed madness of unethical scientific experimentation; or the result of the unbridled egoistical folly of collective human pride. Possibly, something of all these explanations and more have conspired together at this time.

If we look to Indian cosmology, it is said the world goes through repeated celestial cycles of Utopian and Dystopian epochs. Unfortunately, according to these ancient teachings, we are now in the last phase of Kali Yuga, our present dismal cycle, "the age of darkness, the age of vice and misery". Hindus believe civilisation degenerates spiritually during this bleak phase, and each individual cycle is said to last a very long time; Kali Yuga, which began 5,122 years ago, stretches through 432,000 years. If that is so, then we have a long way to go, and it is not a happy thought.

Rise of violence and hate

Fear defeats more people than any other thing in the world, said philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. At this moment, while we face a deadly pandemic, we also face a pandemic of fear.

There are those whose bravery is saving lives, but there are also those for whom fear now dominates life. As media platforms churn out the latest death tolls and other abysmal information, the constant feeling of being under threat affects us all. Constricted by the fear of contagion, we become more conformist and tribalistic, less accepting of outsiders or anything unconventional.

This fear is reflected in the rise of violence everywhere, particularly gun violence in the United States, violence towards the planet that sustains us, violence towards women, and xenophobic attacks on Asians in many places, including a recent incident of racist assault on an Indian in Singapore.

A global crisis of domestic violence has left many women trapped in lockdowns with their abusers, and political tensions are globally high with the rise of autocratic leaders spouting a culture of lies and control.

Unacceptable economic disparity is leading to aggressive confrontations on multiple levels everywhere in the world.

Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes: "We have a great, habitual fear inside ourselves. We're afraid of many things - of our own death, of losing loved ones, of change, of being alone."

All these fears belong to our shadow self, that buried area of uncomfortable personal emotional baggage we all carry deep in our subconscious.

Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychiatrist who spent his life studying this shadow, believed that, just as we have our own personal shadow self, humanity as a whole has a collective unconscious shadow.

In its darkness is contained all the past and present knowledge and experiences human beings share as a people, all the atrocities, cruelties, tragedies and horror perpetrated by humankind over the ages, and stored at an unconscious cellular level.

Jung viewed the two world wars as an eruption of this darkness, like a volcano when the pressure within becomes too great. If he were alive today, he would probably trace the flood of pandemic horror to our collective shadow.

Changing for the better

Yet, it is the presence of this very same shadow, both individually and collectively, that makes us human. In a slim book published in 1933, In Praise Of Shadows, Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki wrote: "We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates... Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty."

To understand both the beauty and the darkness of our world, a collective change in our lives and attitudes is needed, a new paradigm by which to live, of mutual tolerance and respect. As a shower of rain falls to earth in billions of droplets, so the same essence of life fills us all - human, animal, insect, bird and plant.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that "all mental formations - including compassion, love, fear, sorrow and despair - are organic in nature. We don't need to be afraid of any of them, because transformation is always possible".

In 1902, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, writing to a young friend, stressed that it is our inability to understand our higher purpose in life that is the problem. "That which we call destiny goes forth from within people, not from without into them. Only because so many have not absorbed their destinies and transmuted them within themselves while they were living in them, have they not recognised what has gone forth out of them..."

The world is now focused on controlling the coronavirus, as indeed it must, through vaccination and restrictive measures. Yet, if we push the emotional damage of our pandemic back into the shadow without the integration and healing needed to eradicate deeper scars, then we will all have suffered for nought. We must not retreat before the difficulties ahead.

In a world beset with overwhelming challenges, the growing problem of "othering" is now a major destructive force - from the Proud Boys in America, to the present conflagration between Israel and Palestine, to the recent xenophobic attacks on Asians in the US and Indians in Singapore.

In an article in The Atlantic in 2016, then US President Barack Obama was quoted as saying that the stresses of globalisation and the collision of cultures have led to the establishment of a default position in the world, in which things are organised by "tribe - us/them, a hostility towards the unfamiliar or the unknown", and the need to "push back or strike out against those who are different".

According to Jung, however, when the shadow is faced and explored, it is impossible to say others are wrong, for whatever is wrong in the world is found also in oneself.

If we each deal with our own personal shadow, then slowly society can be changed. Transformation is what the world needs now at this historic time, and in spite of everything, thankfully there are many who are working towards that.

• Meira Chand has a doctorate in creative writing and is the author of nine novels, whose themes examine the conflict of cultures and the search for identity.

• We welcome contributions to the Sunday Views column. Write to us at stopinion@sph.com.sg