Here Be Dragons (And Monsters)


We all have a dark side, a place of dragons and monsters. A place we usually try to avoid.

Halloween approaches, and we wait with anticipation to see what monsters will lurk in our streets and doorways. We've decorated our houses for these creatures, bought them bags and bags of candy, and we will be inquisitive, kind and very appropriately afraid when they ring our doorbells yelling "Trick or treat!" 

What might the world be like if we could be so welcoming to our own monsters, the scary dragons of our own internal landscape?

“I'm friends with the monster that's under my bed
Get along with the voices inside of my head."

             - Rihanna, from Eminem’s The Monster

From the 10th through the 17th centuries, it was common practice for cartographers to draw all manner of dragons, sea serpents and other mythological or fantastical creatures on the uncharted areas of their maps.

Contrary to popular opinion, only one map, the Hunt-Lenox Globe, also contained the phrase “Here be dragons,” but this phrase has come, through the faulty “general knowledge” telephone game, to be associated with these same images.

These drawings – not only of dragons and serpents, but also of elephants, walruses and lions (all fantastical creatures in that time) – marked the mysterious, unexplored regions of the globe, places where dangerous or evil elements lurked. Places to fear and, if at all possible, avoid. And most people did.

But then, wouldn’t you know it, the explorers of that time did the other thing. They got in their ships, sailed around the world, and went directly to these dark places. They faced these dragons, serpents, and other mysterious unknowns head on.

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” – Stephen King

I think Philip Seymour Hoffman must have lived with a lot of monsters.

Or maybe just one really big one. By all reports, he fought his monsters bravely until, in one moment of weakness, he just couldn’t fight anymore. And with his death, the world lost a wildly talented, sometimes heartbreakingly honest, actor - a true genius of the theater world.

We like to think we're different than Hoffman, that we're braver, smarter, stronger and that these qualities will help us escape his struggle. “Wow, how sad,” we say, “He must have had some real problems to become so addicted. Glad I’m not like that.”

But let’s face it. We're actually more like him than not like him. Because we are all, in the complexity of our humanity, sometimes mortifyingly capable of doing bad and stupid things.

I know, I know - most of us do these things from a place of fear or weakness, or out of a sense of self-preservation. But the fact remains that we are all fallible creatures who are constantly making pretty spectacular mistakes.

We lie. We cheat. We judge. We hurt those we love. We hurt ourselves, too. And sometimes, like Hoffman, we do these things to the point of destroying the very self we’re trying to preserve.

In short, we all have a dark side, a place of dragons and monsters, where all manner of dangers and evil elements lurk. A place we usually try, if at all possible, to avoid.

And while we’re always learning more about ourselves, and should always, always strive to do and be better, I think we’re kidding ourselves if we believe we will some day achieve a state of grace in which we are perfectly good. This is just not possible. I know because I’ve tried. Oh, how I’ve tried.

So here, inside of all of us, be dragons. Maybe permanently. What can we do about them?

I don’t pretend to have many answers here. But I do have some thoughts about a first step.

I think we can start by being brave, like Hoffman was for so long, and like those explorers so many years ago. Instead of avoiding our dark places, we can commit to doing the other thing. We can climb in our ships and sail to the edges of our selves and, with courage and conviction, confront our dragons, serpents and other mysterious and scary monsters head on.

Then we can embrace them, tell them we love them, and take them out for ice cream. Yes, ice cream.

Because I really believe, like Rihanna and Eminem (and Maurice Sendak, Stephen King and Carl Jung before them), that it's only by making friends with these monsters – our fears, our weaknesses, our meanness, our weird ideas – and forgiving them and accepting them as integral elements of our complex human selves, that we are ultimately able to tame them.

And, moreover, it is only through knowing, embracing and forgiving the wholeness of our selves – dark and light, good and bad – that we are able to understand and forgive this same dichotomy in others.

In our partners, our children, our neighbors, our coworkers. In people like Philip Seymour Hoffman, both a spectacularly gifted and extraordinarily flawed human being.

As Carl Jung observed, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.”

So, as Halloween approaches, I challenge you to join me in taking a page from Eminem and Rihanna.

In the same way that you will be kind and welcoming to the many monsters that will come to your door for Halloween tricks and treats, be friends with your own monsters. Get along with your voices. Explore and embrace your dragons – your flaws, your demons, your frailties, your craziness – and then let your intimate knowledge of your own dark corners lead you to connect with others in all of their wonderful complexity.

Anne Barker is a writer and psychotherapist in Omaha, NE, specializing in working with couples and individuals on all manner of relationship issues. Visit Anne’s relationship blog at Hitch Fix or her website to find out more about her writing and services.

This article was originally published at Barker Therapy Arts Out Of My Mind Blog. Reprinted with permission from the author.