The 1866 Gothic novella, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson was an immediate success. He reportedly saw some of the scenes in dreams and wrote the entire work in its finished form in a few days. It has been staged as a play and made in films multiple times, and been the subject of on-going interpretations. It is one of the most famous pieces of English literature – the foundational work of an entirely new genre called Gothic horror.
Kindly, proper, upright Dr. Jekyll is unhappy suppressing his baser urges and, being a scientist, happens upon a potion that not only allows his cruel, narcissistic, and sociopathic nature to emerge, but to emerge as a physically different person, unrecognizable as the good doctor. In that persona, he is ruthless and selfish, and commits crimes, but can switch back to Dr. Jekyll and escape justice. As time passes, he loses control – Hyde emerges unsummoned, takes over, and dies by suicide.
The novella has been interpreted in numerous ways – as a Freudian conflict between Id, Ego, and Superego; as a representation of the cosmic battle between good and evil, God versus the satan, light versus darkness; as a graphic illustration of the nefarious effects of alcohol on the addict; as commentary on Scottish nationalism; multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia, etc. Its endurance reflects multiple layers of meaning.
Perhaps the simplest of those layers is the revelation that we are all flawed humans. No mortal is all good, nor pure evil. Try as we may, we cannot eradicate the dark sides of our nature.
Historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949) said, “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.”
Suppressing our evil side leads to hypocrisy, spiritual pride, and judgmentalism. Feeding the evil side leads to violence, war, hatred, nationalism, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and so on.
Because I aspire to moral perfection, I envision my ideal self as Sir Galahad, not Lancelot. Noble and true, chaste and pure, willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause. Then, when Hyde appears and I act selfishly, I am at first shocked, then fend off conviction with denial, and finally sink into self-condemnation and despair. I cannot imagine being accepted, loved, forgiven. I have failed miserably. God, if not angry with me, is sorely disappointed. The gates of hell gape before me. What I have failed to realize is that in the very act of extrinsic religiosity, I have deceived myself by denying a portion of who I am.
The strict moralist denies Hyde’s existence by seeing himself as superior to others. He hides Hyde. (I think Robert Louis Stevenson intended the pun.) By so doing, he becomes pharisaical, judgmental, a self-appointed moral police officer full of condemnation for “sinners.” His world is black and white, dualistic. He is right. The other is wrong. He sputters his pontifications.
Others deny the inner evil by splitting themselves into two people so they can indulge Hyde. They are experts at compartmentalization. They can preach to a crowd on Sunday and rendezvous with prostitutes on Monday. Both the compartmentalizer and the moralist are out of touch with themselves and with the Divine. Both drive people away from religion and away from God. Hyde suppressed bursts forth in ugly deeds of betrayal and manipulation that wound others.
Still others respond to Mr. Hyde with self-justification, excuses, and projecting blame on others. (“It’s the woman, you gave me.”) Self-centeredness increases and the heart hardens. The conscience-seared person likewise damages others. Only the humble are receptive to course correction. The rest end up shipwrecked.
A healthy person understands that Mr. Hyde coexists with Dr. Jekyll. She neither denies the existence of Hyde, nor indulges him. She embraces the genteel goodness of Dr. Jekyll without the need to keep up appearances. In an emotionally and spiritually healthy individual, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are integrated. She sees herself realistically – a mixture of good and bad, noble and ignoble, altruistic and selfish. She acknowledges Hyde, and brings him into the light for healing. She knows that Jekyll isn’t as perfect as he thinks he is. She no longer judges herself or others. She knows that God is unchanging, eternal, unconditional love. She comes to God openly, honestly, just as she is, warts and all, a blend of Jekyll and Hyde, knowing God will embrace her.
Most of the time in spiritual direction, life coaching, and pastoral counseling, I haven’t a clue as to how the Holy Spirit will untangle the knots in a person’s heart, soul, and relationships, although I am certain that God will do so. Occasionally, however, God gives insight that shines the light down the road. But even then, giving advice is unadvisable. Practically speaking, giving advice usually doesn’t work. Neither do clichés and truisms.
When a person is in the throes of panic or despair, telling them to think positively, have compassion on themselves, give themselves a break, or stop ruminating – while valid – is akin to telling an addict to “just say no.” Easier said than done. No matter how miraculous the initial deliverance, it takes the hard work of 12 grueling steps and the support of a community to live in freedom.
As with the addict, so also with the person snatched into the tornadic chaos of panic, clinical depression, traumatic grief, or psychosis. Well-meaning platitudes don’t help. Shallow religiosity – “have faith;” “all things work together for good;” “trust God;” “read your Bible” – makes things worse.
What the person in despair, anxiety, grief, or confusion needs is someone to listen, someone to care, someone to hold them nonjudgmentally in the light. Spiritual directors do so, and, in addition, pray for others, listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, and gently point out where they see God working in a person’s life. It is a life-long process of spiritual formation, of integrating the entirety of who we were created to be into wholeness.
Working with and alongside spiritual direction is the depth-psychologist, skilled at navigating the soul towards an understanding and healing of primitive wounds. Had Dr. Jekyll had a spiritual director and a Jungian psychotherapist, his life would have been far freer and happier, and his end would have been far different.