The question of demons has arisen in a number of my conversations and I wanted to address it directly. Let me start by saying that this is a most difficult matter and not to be entertained lightly. For most of us, there will be triggers, either as we face or avoid our own darkness. If you want to tackle the matter, eat well, sleep well, and bring a friend. Seriously, this is one to approach well fortified.
We cannot deny that there are forces in our lives acting against our own best interests. Sometimes people we know drive them; other times they appear as aspects of our own nature, products of our environment (physical or social), or integral to some institution. I will call them, for want of a better term, dark forces. The name conjures images of fantasy villains but, taken simply, it fits well in the modern scientific mindset. They are forces, mass accelerating. Their weight comes from something real in the world: the bulk of tissue in inflammation, the oppressive heat of a jungle in wartime, the expectations of real people in injustice. I have stretched the concept of mass a little, but not too much. Matter is involved. The more matter, the stronger the force. There is also acceleration – something is speeding up or slowing down. The matter isn’t just moving. It is being pushed: cancer grows, our resources run down, people feed the institution with their will and actions. In other words, “forces” mean that something drives a physical change in the world.
The word “dark” can be harder to figure out. I think of dark in terms of “against our preferences” or “against our interests.” Numerous words exist, each with their own baggage. I considered the word “bad,” but it wasn’t strong enough. I’m going to tackle how “evil” and “sick” work for us, so they were out of the question*. We will stick with traditional language – there are dark forces at work in the world. How shall we think of them?
Let me suggest two dichotomies: external vs. internal and personal vs. mechanical. When we deal with dark forces, we tend to label them in these ways and the labels affect how we react. We can speak of external personal antagonists (e.g., demons), external impersonal forces (e.g., spirits such as a spirit of discontent)**, internal personal antagonists (e.g., parasites), or internal impersonal processes (e.g., sickness).
By personalizing a dark force, we make it easier to understand and fight. Humans think in narratives, with good guys and bad guys and a struggle in between. We use those narratives to connect our situation to other situations. We create and respond to emotional pictures of the world. The metaphor of war works for us often, if not all the time. By labeling a dark force as a demon or parasite, we can work up anger against it and use that anger as a motivator. “I will fight.” We are less comfortable and less hopeful when struggling against the impersonal.
By mechanizing a dark force, we bring our reason to bear. It becomes a problem to solve, rather than an enemy to fight. Such thinking can make us less fearful. If only we can find the right lever to push, the right knot to untie, we will prevail. On the down side, this mechanization places the burden on us. Problems that can’t be fixed immediately become a personal burden. Only our will is involved, so any failure must be a failure on our part. It is far easier to simply accept an unimaginably difficult situation than to struggle against it.
By externalizing a dark force, we give ourselves a clear, discrete target to aim at. “ I will overcome.” We need not worry about how other aspects of our lives are linked. We need not question whether we are part of the problem. This can be terribly important for acting decisively. On the down side, it can also lead to scapegoating. “If only I get rid of X, things will be better.”
By internalizing the dark force, we become more aware of the brokenness of the world. That increases compassion and curiosity, but robs us of a safe place to stand, a place from which to act and make things better. For good and ill, thinking of internal dark forces makes us doubt ourselves, our ability to change things, and even our desire to change things.
Each approach helps in some ways and hurts in others. Demons and dark spirits give us ways of articulating problems viscerally and setting up solutions. Sickness and infection do as well. The question becomes, “Which one helps the most?” I suspect the answer differs according to the situation. Giving dark forces agency – making them persons who can change the world, allows us useful differentiation from the problem, but can also grant them too much power over our lives. Even more problematic, morally, will be how we assign mass to these dark forces. Internal dark forces make us ask whether some part of ourselves must be jettisoned, harming our self-concept and tempting us to self-harm. External dark forces allow us to place the blame on others and consider harming them.
Think about the words and concepts you use. Think about how they fit into your own strategies for getting to a better place. Think also about how other people tell the story of their struggles. What work are they trying to do by labeling something a demon, spirit, infection, or sickness? Can you help them tell a story that diminishes the power of dark forces in their lives? The stories we tell change who we are.
* “Darkness” has it’s own baggage, particularly when we look at questions of race. Alas, there are only so many things one can deconstruct at once.
** Entropy might also be considered an external impersonal force but, to the extent we think of it as dark, we no longer think of it scientifically. The scientific concept of entropy is just a measure of disorder. The tendency of disorder to increase with time can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. We all want our coffee to cool, but only so much.