Hollis, James. Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves. New York: Gotham Books, 2007.
Rabbi Harold Kushner famously asked the question many years ago, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” More recently, psychologist James Hollis has asked a reverse question, “Why do good people do bad things?” Much of the answer lies in first recognizing that we are deeply divided selves at the unconscious level. Unless we are willing to come to grips with the dark side, the shadow side, in which we are capable of great hatreds, murderous thoughts, evil desires, great greed and addictive behaviors, we will fail hopelessly to understand ourselves and we will remain dangerous to others.
“Perhaps the wisest insight ever offered by a human being,” writes Hollis, “came from the Latin poet Terence, who, nearly two thousand years ago, wrote, ‘Nothing human is alien to me.’” It was a remarkably perceptive and humble moment of self-discovery. If the Socratic insight that all our knowledge is fallible is the key to intellectual growth, then Terence’s insight might well be the key to psychological growth.
This is not to suggest that all that is deep within us is evil. The unconscious, Carl Jung noted, is also the seat of creativity and moral instinct and proper judgment. But there is no denying that just as water will always find a crack in any rock, our shadow side will always find its way to the surface of our being. And when it does so, no matter how good we may think we are, we will be surprised by the bad things we are capable of doing. In fact, the better we think we are, the more likely we are to be surprised and the less likely we are to limit the damage we do. There is much to be said for the Socratic idea of self-knowledge.
The defenses we throw up to deny our shadow can be fascinating. “Does the religious zealot,” Hollis asks, “spend so much time trying to compel or convert others because he is truly convinced of serving the well-being of others, or is he or she in thrall to the anxiety of inner doubt, that must be driven away by the achievement of unanimity? As author Nicholas Mosley writes, ‘people [are] likely to be Muslims or Christians more from a need to belong to a group that would provide emotional reassurance in a difficult world, rather than as a result of a personal search for truth or meaning.’”
Jung’s goal was not so much goodness as wholeness. Accepting ourselves as the conflicted beings that we are is the beginning of the journey to wholeness and healing, not only for ourselves but for the world. It is the project of a lifetime.
Hollis’s understanding of the shadow side of our selves leads him into a deep empathy for his fellow human beings. “…the sad story of men who sit in strip bars has nearly broken my heart. They are in a redundant hell, for their search for connection narrows into such a constrained repetition, with so little sustaining satisfaction from superficial, commercialized connection. (It is for this reason that sexuality so easily becomes addictive.) Theirs is not a failure of morality; it is a failure of imagination. It is Shadow material not for moralistic reasons, but because it is an unconscious defense against the open grieving of their souls. The Shadow is not sex; but its excessive importance represents a failed treatment plan for the soul’s desire for healing, for connection, for meaning.”
Hollis would encourage each of us to foster self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. “When I despise myself is that not an inflation as well? Where is it written that I am to be perfect, that more is demanded of me than my human limitations allow? The delusion of perfection is not unlike the paradox that the moment I think I am virtuous I am guilty of inordinate pride. So, conversely, when I am utterly wretched, I am also guilty of moral inflation, for I am expecting more from myself than a human is capable. Are we not all, in Nietzsche’s phrase, ‘human, all-too-human’?”
I have barely skimmed the surface of this very rich book which draws heavily on literary/psychological allusions to Fyodor Dostoevsky, Johann Goethe, Joseph Conrad, William Shakespeare and Albert Camus to name a few. One fault of the book, I believe, and maybe this is inevitable given that Hollis is a Jungian, is that there is little appreciation for, or interest shown in, the understanding of the unconscious given us by Freud.
I close with this observation by Hollis: “We will never experience healing until we can come to love our unlovable places, for they, too, ask love of us. Our sick places are sick because no one, especially not us, loved them.” Jesus once said, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” I think Jesus knew, and I think Hollis knows, which is the more difficult task.