“I came here with a huge open heart, like a big, sweet dog, and I still have one. But some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate, preferably if it went viral and the photo of the person showed hair loss and perhaps the lifelong underuse of sunscreen. My heart still leaps to see this. I often recall the New Yorker cartoon of one dog saying to the other: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.”
With her typical wit, honesty, and ability to get to the heart of things, author Anne Lamott gives voice to the shadow, the dark side of our personality, the petty and vindictive self that persists in us despite our desire to be otherwise. We all came here to Mother Earth with a large-hearted innocence, an openness to everything and everyone we encountered. But soon enough, we became less-than-innocent, and more inclined to be not-so-nice.
It’s normal to like some people more than others, it’s normal to dislike those who in some way offend us, and it’s important to keep our distance from those whose presence is toxic to us. But I believe that most of us would like ourselves better if we didn’t want our enemies less-than-attractive faces to go viral. Are we stuck with the shadow-self that literary legend C.S. Lewis has termed “a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds?” Is there any hope of overcoming the tendency to take the low road when someone rubs us the wrong way? Maybe yes. Maybe no.
Spiritual disciplines can make a difference, they can soften us and make us more responsive and less reactive, but they’re not a magic bullet: “I meditate, I chant, I drink green tea, and sometimes I still want to smack someone!” Sometimes, despite our sincere intentions and best efforts, we can still find ourselves relishing the misfortune of people we dislike.
Nurturing our soul is helpful, but in the end we may just have to learn to love our imperfect selves. It is one of life’s wonderful paradoxes that when we love our imperfect selves, what we don’t love about ourselves looms less large. When we realize that there is light beneath the shadow, an inner goodness at the same time that we harbor resentments, we become more tolerant and accepting of others. Maybe the cats don’t have to fail after all!