Presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently mocked a Washington Post story that recounted a brief encounter with law enforcement that Rubio had when he was eighteen. Rubio was caught hanging out in a park after hours, a misdemeanor.
Rubio hit back with a fake ad revealing his other crimes—coloring outside the lines, double-dipping potato chips. The episode was a seemingly small political blip, but it inadvertently points to another problem: We need to stop trying to prevent our boys and men from being boys and men. We need to let them feel passion and lust and adventurousness and act on it. We need to let them get in trouble, drive fast cars, and chase girls. The dark and dangerous part of them—us—that does these things is also the place that can call forth great leadership.
The Rubio “story” in the Post reveals how our culture has become uncomfortable with male behavior. On one hand there are the liberals who seem to celebrate any kind of sexual expression except heterosexual manhood, which they aim to deride and ultimately destroy. On the right are religious conservatives that grow uncomfortable when a man shows his darker side by having too much to drink or talking about female sexuality. There are also the “lad” conservatives who fetishize body humor and the female body without any wit or poetry.
Both left and right attempt to do the same thing: stamp out the shadow. The shadow is an idea from Jungian psychology. It represents the subconscious, as well as the darker aspects of our personalities. The shadow can be our lust, violence, depression, and anger. But it is also the seat of creativity. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” He added, “In spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness—or perhaps because of this—the shadow is the seat of creativity.” For some, “the dark side of his being, his sinister shadow . . . represents the true spirit of life as against the arid scholar.”
The shadow is crucial to psychic health, and particularly powerful in leaders (both male and female). Think of the classic Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk was literally divided into two people, one good and one evil. While the evil Kirk roamed the Enterprise forcing himself on women and getting into fights, the good Kirk grew more and more weak and vacillating. In order to function, Kirk needed both sides of his personality.
I’m not talking about illiterate, boorish behavior or crudity and sexism. Men who celebrate pornography or pick fights for no reason are burdened with too much shadow; they are all dark Captain Kirk. Nor would we want men who have given up on being men. We flock to James Bond films to see a protagonist who is both cultured and also deeply in touch with his shadow. We love athletes who go on the field, down in the mud, going head to head in a game of brute force. Comic books with characters like Batman and Daredevil allow us to explore the darkness that is increasingly banished from both public and private life.
In our age of supposedly liberal enlightenment and third (or is it fourth?) wave feminism, the male shadow is not acceptable. Liberals won’t tolerate it and conservatives aren’t quite sure how to handle it. And so Marco Rubio finds himself making news because he was once in a park after hours when he was eighteen. Rubio’s satirical response was fine, but it would have been better if he had embraced his shadow, freely admitting that as a young man he felt lust, the thirst for danger, anger, and even depression. Many of our greatest leaders, from Abraham Lincoln to John F. Kennedy, revealed their shadow sides. Today, we have political candidates trading insults about each other’s shoes.
Yes, in earlier eras we were less healthy, less sensitive, and tolerated some awful behavior. But we were also a stronger and more self-assured people.