Guilt and Shame in Relationship to Identity and Agency
I’ve watched the 2011 film version of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga with Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender twice this year so far; (I love it, esp. the direction and soundtrack) something about this timeless story of asserting identity and agency into a “simple” life of rules, regulations and assigned social station resonates very deeply with my own path at the moment. (As does the brilliant Broadway show “Hamilton” — it’s a cultural theme that’s stimulated all around, if you look for it).
One of the reasons I keep coming back to this film is the compelling beauty of the Gothic storytelling, and the atmospheric direction (not to mention Dame Judy Dench’s bit part as a housekeeper) — but the reason I can’t stop thinking about it is that it’s hard for us to imagine that the concept of the “self” — of turning inward to find your own energy, morality, creativity, personal freedom and personality — and asserting that found energy or self onto the world around you — is “new”.
The Brontë sisters truly pioneered this in literature, mirroring the radical shift of Protestantism and its effect on an individual’s connection to God and scripture. If you no longer need a priest to commune with God or interpret scripture, then you no longer need your family or religion or society (the group) to tell you who you are and what you can choose. So then who are you? And what do you choose? That journey, of self discovery and individuation, is really only 200 years old (in popular culture). What Jane Eyre (or Charlotte and Emily Brontë) would think of selfies, Facebook and Reality TV!
There is much to deconstruct from this mystic story in relationship to the rise of our current cultural fascination and uplifting of identity and ego, but that’s not the point of this story. What I’m thinking about is shame, the shame of having an identity, and the ways in which we are caught in an internal cycle of guilt around having one that might be seperate from the groups we originate in — our families, our churches, our schools and our culture. This shame is the anchor around poor Jane’s gothicly covered ankle.
Jane, an unwanted orphan, exists at the pleasure of her family. While an acute picture of an origin wound, we all as children exist in this same state, subject to the energies, constructs and places into which we are born. When our dreams and desires begin to pull us away from the family group in adolescence (that what is expected of us by our family and community) it is normal that we experience shame and punishment. Nobody likes it when you deviate from what they expect or want from you, and they will tell you that you are wrong, or too much (or not enough). Nobody likes it when you leave behind certain parts of your self, identity or upbringing to change and become someone new. I won’t deconstuct the entire book, but I will say that stories are timeless when they bring forth certain archtypes or life experiences that we all share in our most intimate spaces. This is one of those stories.
While considering this story in these terms, I happened on this fascinating book of poetry by R.D Laing— titled “Knots”. On page 35, this isolated passage illustrates where Jane (and many of us) become caught as we struggle to individuate.
R.D. Laing does an incredible job here illustrating how these energies, shame and punishment, work together to keep us caught in a loop from which many people cannot emerge. Almost like being caught in an orbit by gravity, if you are stuck in these energies it might be hard for you to actually grow, change, individuate and actualize. The experience of this can be a building or growing awareness that “something is wrong with you” — when actually, everything is right with you, but it’s the cyclical trap that creates the feeling of “wrong”. We internalize this energy, and can’t see the forest for the trees.
Jane’s intensity comes from her inexhaustable desire as a being to actualize. We all know people like this if we are not one ourselves — always changing, always growing, never settling. This is her (and our) gift. Not everyone does this, but for those of us that have chosen this path of growth, it is intense and all-consuming.
Virginia Woolf said of this book, “[Jane is] an overpowering personality, so that, as we say in real life, they have only to open the door to make themselves felt. There is in them some untamed ferocity perpetually at war with the accepted order of things which makes them desire to create instantly rather than to observe patiently.” This probably resonates with many artists, seekers, mystics and those who are on a creative path — you create your way out of trouble, create as a way of moving forward, you probably walk into a room and immediately start creating without even thinking about it. Your urgency and fire is almost on auto-pilot because it’s the only thing keeping you orbiting and not crashing to the planet below and dying.
Both Jane and Rochester see in each other different expressions of the same wound, drive and intensity (many of us know this energy in ourselves, in our own way) — which comes from an inexhaustable desire as a being to actualize, individuate and express our true selves. We all know people like this if we are not actively in this ourselves — always changing, always growing, never settling. This is her (and our) gift as creatives. It is something to be valued, owned and healed.
Jane is entitled to her sense of self simply because she is a sentient being and has an ego. She doesn’t need to earn it. You are entitled to the same thing — if that’s what you choose for yourself. The shame she feels for having this internal self, for having dreams, wanting more than is afforded her social station and ultimately — for falling in love — is nothing more than product of this cycle that Laign illustrates in his poem above. The shame and guilt you are stuck in is no different. Because she was born with nothing, everything she posesses is either “stolen” or “favored” to her — with the solitary exception of her own will, agency and identity. It is literally the only thing she has to hold onto, as timid, uncertain and slippery as it is. Her journey is the struggle to find, connect with, and express this agency in a way that finally feels true and right. And isn’t that all of us?
The only thing she’s truly stolen away is the group’s right and ability to control her with their will and desires. She is moving towards her autonomy, so the groups that are invested in keeping her in line respond with punishment and shame in an effort to get her to stop growing, or to return to her appointed place in the group, what was destined for her. Starting to sound familiar? If you’re a creative, A mystic, a healer or a psychic, I bet it does.
The only way to break free from this is to clear the energy of the shame you’ve been carrying around just for being you. The only way to break free of this cycle — to truly leave the orbit from where you come from and find what you desire — is to clear the guilt and shame tossed at you by others and go forth into the unknown untethered and free. There you will “come into your own” as they say — or as I call it, own yourself outright.
Every time I revisit Jane Eyre I find it a profound healing, and it speaks to me wherever I am in my own journey as an artist, a mystic and healer. I am so grateful to the Brontës for having the bravery, insight, boldness and luck to tell the stories they did in the way they did — ways that are a healing across time and space to modern artists, healers, mystics and women still.