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Behind the Mask: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants


“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is fully known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” ~ Joseph Campbell.

The bridge that spans the gap between finitude and infinity is the human torn between being both an animal and a god. This is the ultimate challenge on the path toward self-actualization: the counterintuitive balance that must be maintained between honesty and hypocrisy, the ruthless acceptance that the perception of reality is inherently a metaphor for reality.

The price of admission is a commitment to the constant realization that we are eminently fallible creatures crammed with delusions, base emotions, biases, and holier-than-thou tendencies, on the one side; while also reveling in the exact uniqueness of our improbable being and magnificently enigmatic propensity toward god-like creativity, on the other side.

There is hypocrisy inherent within the human condition, sure, but there is nothing saying that it cannot be sincere. Sincere hypocrisy is an act of credo qua absurdum, embracing the absurd. Man can, in one breath, admit that existence is inherently meaningless and, in the very next breath, deny that meaninglessness as meaningless and affirm his existence as meaningful.

“To acknowledge untruth as a condition of life,” wrote Nietzsche, “this surely means resisting customary value feelings in a dangerous way; and a philosophy that ventures such a thing, just by doing so, places itself beyond good and evil.”

If, as Isaac Newton wrote, “I have seen further than others by standing on the shoulders of giants” then it behooves us to don the masks of the great heroes who have gone before us in order to see further than they did.

gas-maskThe art of mask-wearing is akin to standing on the shoulders of giants. I’m using the term “mask” as a symbol that metaphorically represents the act of “standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, and here’s the rub, each mask is meant to be broken.

The most important mask to break is the first one. If the first mask is not broken, then the Shadow remains in an unconscious state.

By breaking the first mask we force the Shadow into conscious awareness. One of the more important lessons learned by self-actualized people is the recognition that the primordial self consists of a menagerie of personas and sub-selves, each with the power to wear a plethora of masks.

This includes shadowy persona and ‘dark’ sub-selves. Like Jung wrote, “Everyone carries a Shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it becomes.”

And so the bête noire ‘the black beast,’ the arbitrariness of self, must be discovered rather than ignored, must be embraced rather than suppressed, and must, above all else, be forced to move in a new way, through a new passage.

william-mortensenA sacred turning in you turns the universe. And so, a sacred turning of your shadow transforms the shadows.

One should not shun the shadow for fear of being immoral. Nowhere is it written that one cannot be both compassionate and individualistic, both humble and daring, both stable and rebellious, both respectful and insurgent.

Balance and moderation in all things is the key, especially with the Shadow. But even balance and moderation must be tested from time to time in order to discover New-chaos, which can eventually be transformed into New-order.

Like Louis Herman wrote, “By accepting the inevitability of our shadow, we recognize that we are also ‘what we are not.’ This humbling recognition restrains us from the madness of trying to eliminate those we hate and fear in the world. Self-mastery, maturity, and wisdom are defined by our ability to hold the tension between opposites.”

Breaking the first mask humbles the shadow. It frees us to move on to the next “mask,” to leap onto the next “giant’s shoulder.”

We don’t do this because we want to walk the path of the giants, necessarily, but because we want to learn what they have learned, and then see further than they did. The knowledge gleaned becomes a sacred tool that we can place into our “sacred tool bag” for use on our own unique path.

With the Christ-tool we move this obstacle. With the Buddhist-tool we remove that obstacle. With the Nietzsche-tool we leverage this obstacle against that obstacle, thus removing both obstacles. The more sacred tools we use, the clearer our path becomes. The more shoulders of giants we stand upon, the further we see.

The more masks of ancient heroes we don, the more sacred things appear. The world becomes a giant playground of interconnected, sacred knowledge, and it’s all ours for the seizing. Our individuation unfolds into godhood. Our self-actualization is at hand. And what do we discover? The more we know, the more we realize how much we don’t know. So we better cultivate a good sense of humor.

Image source:
The Journey begins, by Parablev
The Shadow

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  • Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.

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