The Shadows—Envy, Guilt and Shame

Arthur Panaro - August 2, 2013

'For years the people of Gotham City have told rumors of a strange, elusive personage.'

"When my inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside of myself as my fate." -Carl Jung (phraseology, mine)

Envy can be one's fate. From within the gloom of a man's shadow and shame, he can look out at what he thinks to be a sunny world of people happier than he--people living freely. The envious one judges that almost everyone but himself is achieving their goals due to some miraculous strength and self-determination of character, powers which the envious lack. How to awaken such powers? The internal monologues might be: Who do they think they are? They look good, but it's only an illusion, if only they knew it. Oh if only it could have been different for me.

The Rageful Penguin
For me, the most remarkable archetype of envious rage ever depicted in cinema is the Penguin, played by Danny DeVito, in Batman Returns. Having been born with flipper-like fingers, the newborn Penguin-boy is literally thrown away by his fabulously wealthy parents.

Let us think about this a little. How it is that they did not think to give their special needs child the best medical and remedial care? But no. They are not acting out of the socioeconomic status. These parents are moved, it appears, by a tragic, instinctual confusion and disgust. Here there is no “pietas” (the ancient Roman personification of familial affection, patriotism, and piety.) Not even protective and sympathetic paternity. This is child abuse of the first order of magnitude --- even attempted murder. The film script merely limns the parent's choice, which is bracketed in the drama, for their part trails off and we do not follow their life to see if there is regret, if any. But they are, without a doubt, the theatrical models of bewildered, unskillful, rejecting, abusive and fearsome parents.

The infant, in his bassinet and wrapped up in billowing swaddling clothes against the midwinter of Gotham City, is dropped into a Central Park-like meandering stream. The parents cannot comprehend nor tolerate this condition of their son and their deed is hidden in the night. The scene is marvelous cinema, though ghastly. The stream feeds into an underground drainage system. This in turn washes the “aquatic boy” into the underground watery caverns below the penguin aquarium of the city zoo. The stolid penguins greet and adopt the child. A feral child that survives into adulthood, seething with resentment as an outcast of society.

For years the people of Gotham City have told rumors of a strange, elusive personage.

Eventually, the Penguin poses as a claimant of his rightful identity and birthright. To find out who his parents are and why they did what they did to a child “who was a little different." So he arranges an event that brings him up from below into the glare of publicity. He is viewed as a fantastical celebrity which condition allows him access to the city's obituary archives. He finds the graves of his parents, obscured in a lot secreted within the windowless brick back walls of tenements in Lower Gotham City and he lays a flower on their graves to their honor. The press attends his discovery and shouts --- “Penguin? What about your parents?” “True,” he says, “I was their number one son, but they treated me like number two. But I forgive them,” and his magnanimous pardon makes the front page.

However, the Penguin really does not forgive. Anger, his sense of his disgrace and shame fester in his soul. He has a concealed agenda of revenge, projecting his insane, resentful anger toward the current firstborn infant males of Gotham City, who he sees as the clueless and the undeserving fortunate. His delusional scheme rises from his troubled question of "why are these children are not suffering as he has?" They are having it too good. They need to feel the trauma that the Penguin has suffered. His psychopathic plot to kidnap these children, planned over the years in his cavernous, watery palace is meant to “settle the score” and make others pay just like he has. He actually wants to kill them all in an act reminiscent of King Herod’s infanticides. The story takes place in the Christmas season.

Guilt is denoted by “I made a mistake” and I can remedy it by making amends and settling up. Life goes on. The connotation of “ashamed” is closer to guilt than to shame.

Shame is very toxic. In contrast to guilt, shame has the terrible nuance of “I AM a mistake”--worthless, hopeless, empty, desperate, discouraged, and doomed to failure. There can be no worse state of mind. The person in shame is the walking wounded.

If I am not well defended by my self-worth, then slights, zingers, questions--even normal enquiries--become tinged with paranoia. Almost everything sticks to me like Velcro®. I might become too cautious or hyper-vigilant or ill-at-ease. The trick is to coat one's self with psychic Teflon®.

We are born with open hands waiting to be nurtured. It is not unreasonable to hope (in my 'tabula rasa' infant mind) that I will receive enough love, acceptance, honor, praise and healthy admiration. However, if care-giving is stingy, haphazard or offensive, eventually I can self-cure by becoming courageous and standing up for myself. If approval was not mirrored to me, I can hold up this mirror by myself.

This is the work of maturity and individuation*. It is no small undertaking. There are mentors, counselors, books and programs abound “out there.” The elements are personal integrity and accountability, a vision and mission of service to myself and others. The lament “oh if only it could have been different...” is jettisoned and replaced with “What can I do now, going forward?”

And at last it may be hoped that there is a "self" within each of us that is beyond resentment and envy, beyond being wounded or admired. This self can awaken as a higher self--the self that is awakened and empowered enough to accept everyone and everything--the self that forgives all the wrongs and mistakes he or she and others have made. This is the "self" that is understanding, compassionate and loving.

  • *The individuation process is a term created by the famous psychologist Carl Gustav Jung to describe the process of becoming aware of oneself, of one’s make-up, and the way to discover one’s true, inner self. Although the structure is basicand simple, the contents require a much deeper understanding. (

  • “Ressentiment” is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the “cause” of one's frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one's frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability. -Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia