For all the attempts to cast humanity in the brightest way possible — religious positivism, new-age soul-making, liberal visions of the evolution of virtue, and fairy-tales with happy endings — the dark side keeps casting a shadow across history. Is this simply, as some believe, the eternal struggle between good and evil, a cosmic competition personified by the rulers of heaven and hell, or is something else at play?
The Star Wars franchise has built a large fortune plying the push and pull of goodness vs. the dark side, and every time it seems as if the side of light is winning, the dark side re-emerges to convert souls to its mission of evil. The dark side seems to have special powers: fear and terror it can wield in implementing its vision, and a ready corps of acolytes, ordinary humans easily drawn to its powers.
Such parables may seem like simple entertainment, but they actually reflect an essential human drama playing out on the world’s stage. It seems as if each time human society nears a new summit of light and understanding it is undermined by forces of darkness that cannot be conquered, only suppressed. It is as if movement itself towards the light brings forth the power of darkness, and from each period of darkness a new force of light eventually emerges.
This is the tale we tell ourselves, anyway: that light and dark are both competing and complementary and that the pendulum swings of history cannot be avoided. Such rationales, however, do little to assuage the torment of being in the midst of such a period of oscillation, and for millions of people the world has once again entered such a period. Across the globe, nationalist and nativist movements have re-emerged from the shadows of the past; neofascist, racial and religious intolerance have thrust the world into a period of uncertainty and chaos. For those on the side of light, there seems to be no rest for the weary.
Is the hope for a different world simply naive, wishful thinking? Are visions of a generous and egalitarian Star Trek Federation just a sap to liberal thinkers? In some sense, the answer to these questions is “yes.” The darkness of society emerges from the hidden underworld of human psyche, that unconscious realm of shadows, symbols, unresolved fears, uncomfortable fantasies, nightmares and inexplicable drives and desires. Knowing this does not solve the problem of darkness, but it does provide a possible way to work our way through it.
As long as we continue externalize the causes of evil rather than accepting our own dark side as real, darkness will torment us. This is, in part, the lesson of all wisdom traditions; if we refuse to know ourselves, we remain confused, vulnerable and our own worst enemy. This is also the wisdom of psychotherapies that push us into the dark recesses of our hidden selves and illuminate the unconscious. Similarly, the shamanic practices of ancient people sought to reveal and acknowledge the darkness at work within us all.
In this sense, there is no rest for the weary. The human psyche is deeply layered; peel away one and yet another is revealed. The harder we try to escape, avoid or distract ourselves from the dark truth of our hidden selves, the scarier and more threatening the world becomes.