Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

Courage of Shadow

Dark, sinister, wicked thumos—shadow thumos—is undisciplined, reckless, and selfih.  Instead of being willing, shadow thumos is willful.  It’s consumptive and thievish; it’s prowling, arrogant nature is hell-bent on satiating one’s inflated ego and sordid appetites.  Shadow thumos puts a man, or more accurately a man-boy, at the exclusive center of a universe in which all others are to serve and soothe and please and change his diapers.  Shadow thumos ultimately is childish by nature, but it’s extremely developed and proficient in its ability to harm and destroy.


Visually, for instance, shadow thumos is a guy ostentatiously grabbing his crotch and thrusting his hips; this is where such a man pours his thumos, into the messenger of his distorted obsession with self-gratifying pleasure.  This is a zone of trickery for women who are attracted to thumos but unaware of or unwilling to recognize its dark side.  (Much, though not all, of rap music is the unofficial soundtrack to shadow thumos; its “artists” give ample and ongoing illustrations of its imagery.)


Men with low or no thumos often complain of this.  Whether out loud or to themselves, they ask, “Why do the jerks always get the women?”  The answer: Even dark thumos usually is more attractive than low or no thumos.  (That’s the subject of the next chapter.)


Men commit more than 90 percent of sexually predatory crimes.  It’s sinful thumos that makes men willing to commit acts of profound and vicious evil, stripping others of their God-given dignity and marring their essence for a cheap and abusive thrill; this malevolence crushes weaker people in its winepress of wrath.  When propagandist Joseph Goebbels said that Nazi fascism was “in its nature a masculine movement,” he was describing one of thumos’s blackest expressions.


The following are terms, flavors, expressions, and moods that describe shadow thumos for us to consider, ponder, and pray about:


Rage, wanderlust, isolation, remote, domineering, selfish, bravado, machismo, simplistic, wife beating, child abuse, gang rape, gang violence, domination, road rage, incest, violent fundamentalism, anti-social, dry-eyed, draining, insulting, immature, blaming, shaming, overbearing, untrustworthy, reckless, rigid, will to pleasure, will to power, abandons, non-fathers, superfluous, hubris, cynical, over-tickles, arrogant, disruption, enemy making, honor, dissed, blasphemous, revenge, malice, strife, outbursts of wrath, defensive, willfulness, prejudice, rash, Islamic radicalism, Crusades, narcissism.


With this spirit in mind, fill in a few words or phrases of your own.


Unfortunately, our minds tend to remember more examples of shadow thumos than noble thumos.  The reasons are many, and I don’t claim to understand them all.  Psychological theory tells us, for instance, that in our lives we retain the memory of roughly nine negative events to every one positive.  It seems that in the present conditions of our reality, here and now, pain embeds itself in our souls more easily than pleasure.


Shadow thumos is a once-good attribute—often a strong will—that has gone in the wrong direction, and because it’s not tethered to a higher power, it isn’t kept in check or harnessed.  As Scott Peck pointed out, a strong will is among the greatest faculties we can possess, but it also carries with it the potential to curse ourselves and others.  “The worst side effect of a strong will,” he warned, “is a strong temper—anger.”


Shadow thumos widely reduces itself to bullying.  Courage-gone-wrong delights in unfair power—as long as it’s one’s own.  Older brothers often give in to shadow thumos against their younger brothers, which reminds me of an Old Norse proverb: “Brothers will fight together and become each other’s bane.”  Sad but true for many.  With their extra bit of muscle, brainpower, and street smarts, the older ones often lord it over the younger with subtle and not-so-subtle acts of abuse that cause humiliation.


Why?  “Because they can,” I’ve said to my second-oldest son while remembering my own childhood.  Notice, however, when someone treats older brothers with similar disdain or contempt, they come unglued.  They often weep bitter tears and rail like Old Testament prophets against injustice, demanding that all wrongs cease at once.  And so it goes.


Once, long ago, I was camping with two high school buddies, Ed and Kelly.  Ed and I had ridden our bikes to the end of a road that brought us to the beach in Astoria, Oregon.  This was the ‘90s’ we were wearing 401 Levis and had long-johns under our T-shirts.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, a lean-faced, dark-haired, twenty-something man-boy pulled up in a muscle car with two women.


Why does the bad guy always seem to have not just one but two girls?  Again, thumos of any stripe is tremendously attractive.  Even so, what amazes me is that such a woman grows accustomed to seeing her man let loose his shadow thumos upon others—and then, nonetheless, is shocked when he unleashes it upon her.


He told us to stop, which was an easy order to fill; we were at the end of the road.  Then he ambushed us.  He pulled out a fixed-blade knife, held it up, and commanded us to ride our bikes into the ocean.  We refused.


In a moment that seemed to last forever, he walked behind me.  I was straddling my ten-speed, awkwardly.  As he lurked, I could hear the blood in my head course by my ears—it sounded like someone sanding old cedar with a scrub brush.  For some reason I didn’t run.  He was very close to me, so I don’t think I imagined I could get away.  Something told me he was bluffing, but I wasn’t sure.


I breathed deeply, tried to relax, and closed my eyes.  I prepared myself to be stabbed in the back through my rain-soaked jacket.  I heard the sound of cutting—through the bag that dangled under my seat.  He appeared over my left shoulder, threw my bag on the ground, and said something about how that could’ve been me.  Then he went to torment Ed.


Neither of us rode our bikes into the surf.  Neither of us ran.  And, mercifully, neither of us got stabbed.


Many times, shadow thumos dominates not for survival but for kicks.  And practitioners almost always get their kicks off weaker people.  In this way they are cowards, because they rarely, if ever, pick on peers.  People of shadow thumos devour and don’t consider; they consume and don’t replenish.


Practitioners of shadow thumos have not indignation but hate, disdain, pride, terror, and supremacy heating their courage.  They are sinners, but remember: so are men who extinguish their courage.  The shortcomings of cowards are just less noticeable than those of criminals.


Unless a man adheres to a faith that exalts love above all else—even honor and dignity—he will seek to steal another man’s honor and dignity in return…maybe even his life.  Shadow thumos met by shadow thumos creates cyclical hatred and retribution.


But when I say “a faith that exalts love,” I don’t mean the weak-wristed kind of sentimental feel-goodish stuff we mistake for love today, especially in church and especially through popular worship music.  It’s not an either/or: either retaliation or reticence, either monster or mouse.  We can preserve and protect without being vicious or vengeful; noble courage doesn’t say we cannot defend ourselves from shadow thumos.  But it does tell us that our motives shouldn’t include revenge: eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth.


Some words and concepts in the lists describing noble and shadow thumos appeared in both.  Three, actually: they are honor, disruption, and enemy making.  Once again, this is because, like gasoline, combustible thumos can go both ways, depending on motives and depending on the outcome.  Assault is disruptive…and so are the wounds of a friend that can be trusted.  Each might well create an enemy.  Protecting the honor of another person can be an act of noble thumos, yet the belt buckles of Himmler’s Nazi SS troops read, “My Honor is Loyalty.”  We’ll put that on the shadow side.

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous FaithNo More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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