I have had a theory for some time that a century in the life and maturation of a nation is equivalent to a year in the life and maturation of an individual. By that reckoning, India and Egypt, two cultures rooted in the world’s most ancient civilizations, are about 50, Ethiopia 45, and China 42. Greece is around 28. The United States is two and a half.
If we here in the U.S. are in the two’s, it appears to be the proverbial “terrible two’s,” complete with the whole repertoire of willfulness and self-importance that we typically see in children at that age. In the 2016 presidential race, this was fully politicized by Donald Trump as “America First” and promoted under a populist pretext, but that slogan was really just an extension of the same immaturity that’s seen both conservatives and liberals of every stripe insisting for generations that “we’re the greatest nation on earth” (whatever that means) and otherwise indulging in baldfaced self-promoting, chest pounding, and throwing tantrums when things don’t go our way. It is, to understate the matter, deeply concerning. While Democrats were marginalizing blue collar, rural, and less educated citizens, Republicans were shifting to the alt-right, obstructing bipartisan cooperation and pushing their agenda with a narrowly self-serving, “win at all costs” mentality that can only be understood as childish if not infantile. Such behavior is normal and expected in an actual two-year-old. It is another matter when a 40- or 50- or 60- or 70-year-old acts this way. The consequences of this widespread arrested development among the nation’s putative leadership are proving to be disastrous, as the most pressing needs of the country go unmet while the “me first attitude” fosters gridlock, enmity, apathy, a refusal to discuss the issues of the day fairly, and the eternal tabling of critical and morally basic programs. Conspicuously, these include enacting gun control laws to keep our schoolchildren safe in school, ensuring and improving the affordability and accessibility of health care, mandating fair and humane treatment of minorities and immigrants, cooperating with other nations to safeguard the word’s climate, depolarizing race relations especially where the police are involved, and passing responsible Internet privacy legislation to protect users against the sort of gloves-off and unprecedentedly widespread abuse of personal information committed by companies such as Cambridge Analytica, which handled all digital aspects of the Trump campaign, relying largely on deceptive data mining practices (through which it acquired the personal information of millions of Facebook users) and illicit campaign influencing. Investigative reporting brought all this out of the shadows in March—more than a year after the election. In May, Cambridge Analytica closed its doors and filed for insolvency. Even a lickspittle Congress could not keep looking the other way, and Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was called to Capitol Hill to explain how massive numbers of Facebook users could have been compromised in this way. Zuckerberg apologized, as he has many times, for the lax management of user data, and promised, as he has many times, to treat that data more responsibly.
Sadly, this sort of accountability is the exception that should be the rule. Here in the U.S., laws and policies are designed to protect the financial interests of companies, not the rights of individuals. It is not surprising then, that the dramatically stricter privacy laws that went into effect on Friday last—the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—came out of the European Union. Indeed, as recently as last March, the Republican Congress had struck down landmark internet privacy protections for consumers established under President Obama. Fortunately for all of us, since the Internet is global, companies with international interests have little choice now but to step up to the new GDPR requirements. Why did Congress not only fail to act to protect consumers from privacy abuse by Internet companies, but also try to dismantle the few protections that had been put in place? The answer to this is that Congress is also about two years old, and two-year-olds, who have a famously short attention span, care only about being “number one,” winning at all costs, and getting what they want when they want it. They lack the social development and maturity to consider longterm consequences or the effects of their actions on others even in the short term. It is a mentality that explains why people will shoot each other over a parking space or how a group of politicians can rationalize separating parents and children attempting to immigrate into the country. It has become painfully clear that many if not most of the men and women in Congress and the White House only look like adults. Their behavior, however, gives them away, for adults have an abiding ethical sense, a conscience, an awareness of their limitations, empathy for others, and sufficient responsibility to face and tackle challenging problems especially where the need for solutions is urgent. They do not think only of themselves, their party, their agenda, their career, their reputation. They do not resort to name-calling, scapegoating, distortion and denial of the truth, boasting, overreacting, and magical thinking. They are mature enough to go slowly, consider and reconsider, tell it like it is, and weigh probable outcomes. In the matter of Internet privacy, Europe stepped in and did what Congress would not do, and consumers here in the U.S. will be better off for it, more secure and less subject to corporate exploitation of the privacy that so many Americans have blithely sacrificed for the convenience of an app they can use to change the thermostat setting or an Amazon device designed for convenience but capable of surveillance. Two-year-olds think nothing of going to the bathroom with the door wide open. They are no more concerned with privacy at that age than we have been as a society since the advent of the iPhone and other “smart” devices. And we may fairly ask, why should Congress care more about our privacy than we do? It took Europe, with a far more mature appreciation of the importance of privacy and the dangers of centralized collection of personal data by government and corporations, to get us moving in the right direction.
The theory is not perfect. By my calculus, Russia is about twelve. Yet it would be hard to find a nation on earth that rivals Russia’s political machinations and power mongering not only under Putin but also going back to the Cold War and before, during Stalin’s infamous Great Purge, for example. Iran, about as old as Greece, has not outgrown its long history of sectarian feuding nor recognized the equality and rights of women. One expects more of a nation well past its teenage years. Still, I believe the theory has merit. If nothing else, it might call older nations to start acting their age, and young nations like the U.S. to tone down the rhetoric of childhood, start playing well with others, and return to a less vexing time when we expected our political leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, to bring character, conscience, and an uncompromising commitment to the common good in carrying out the duties of their office. Winning at all costs is too costly. Sowing seeds of social divisiveness, lying to look good or evade the just consequences of one’s actions, putting political agendas above the best interests of the country and all its people, shamelessly trying to justify traumatizing immigrant children by separating them from their parents at the border in the name of national security, flouting our custodial responsibilities to the earth—at the end of the day, these are puerile attitudes that confess arrested development and open the door to disastrous consequences. Perhaps before that happens, we can find a way to grow up.
27 May, 2018
Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parent’s love, put in the bag… Then we do a lot of bag stuffing in high school… We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.
| Robert Bly
Jung’s concept of “the shadow”—those dark elements of the psyche that we push away into the “bag” of the unconscious, that we seek to deny or avoid—ironically sheds a good deal of light on the events that are gathering over Washington D.C. these days like menacing storm clouds. Mr. Trump is, of course, at the epicenter of these developments, a tragic figure whose long history of entitled behavior seems to be catching up with him. Some observing Mr. Trump might think he is nothing but shadow, giving free, unabashed reign to impulses that most of us would feel at least some social obligation to restrain, such as “sexual lust, power strivings, selfishness, greed, envy, anger or rage” (Stephen A. Diamond). Indeed, this explains Mr. Trump’s sudden rise to power in a national election no one believed he could win. The collective consciousness of the nation had had enough of political correctness and elite Democratic thinking that tried to impose its brand of equality and civility by denying the inherent violence of the shadow, a denial personified in Hillary Clinton. The self-important, “when they go low, we go high” and condescending repudiation of the “deplorables” could not withstand the onslaught of Trump’s relentless embodiment of the marginalized shadow. Flouting Democratic values, openly misogynistic and xenophobic, blithely self-promoting and self-serving, racist, boorish, predatory, belligerent—Trump resonated with disenfranchised voters who were fed up with eight years of Democratic idealism and indifference to the dark, politically incorrect, chauvinistic rage that had been incubating within the national psyche. It was this defiant, “gloves off” persona that made Trump seem to them far more honest than Clinton and propelled him into office—a shadow man endorsed by a shadow electorate that was ready to excuse philistine behavior and discount previously central issues of a candidate’s character rather than continue to be sidelined. This is what happens when Dr. Jekyll tries to suppress Mr. Hyde. At some point, Hyde rises up, seizes power, and havoc ensues.
It may well be in our nature to deny the shadow, but as Jung understood, the psyche can never be whole until the shadow is acknowledged and integrated. Certainly we see again and again in philosophical counseling sessions that meaningful change becomes possible only when the client is willing to face the shadow, accept responsibility for his collusion in his suffering, own what had been disowned, and resolve to take a new and better direction. As long as the client is still invested in self-promotion, as long as he is busy defending and explaining and justifying and being right, he remains a victim of his shadow holdings. Moreover, the longer the shadow is disallowed, the stronger and more ruthless it becomes. Eventually, denial of the dark side becomes unsustainable.
The importance of this is hard to overstate. The experiences of the past, emotional woundings and traumatic episodes in particular, collect in the “long bag” of the unconscious like debts accruing interest. Over time, it becomes increasingly harder to keep dragging that bag behind us. The longer we deny the shadow, the greater our burden becomes, until we are no longer present, because everything in the present becomes a screen for the projection of unfinished business, a trigger, a summons to turn to and tend to the disowned and painful truths of who we have been and who we are that have been exiled to the unconscious. This is why it’s crucial that we begin reaching into the bag of the psyche and “take out again” those parts of our nature that we have rejected—the ‘low,” ugly parts, the mean-spirited and violent and selfish and “imperfect” parts—not because we want to be these things, but because they are primal, and denying what is primal is unsustainable and a formula for catastrophe.
In the Jungian view, the darker forces in the psyche that we are loathe to face in ourselves we project onto others, not only individually but collectively. Demonizing other nations, ethnic or political groups, and religions is the result of projecting the disowned and denied parts of ourselves onto others and regarding them as evil. We see this sort of projection going on even in Congress, where winning at all costs has become the new order, and disagreement is construed as disloyalty. Much of Jungian therapy involves the deconstruction of such projections, allowing the client to reclaim and integrate the shadow, to come to terms with Mr. Hyde so that the monster never needs to rise up and wreak havoc.
The shadow cannot simply be unleashed. At the end of the day, denying the light side of our nature is no more sustainable than denying the dark side. Anyone who is so wounded that he cannot admit his failings, who lies to look good, exploits others, sows discord for personal gain or advantage, and otherwise seeks to aggrandize himself sooner or later is pulled down by the undertow of the shadow and drowns in darkness, as it were. Aristotle tells us that character can be rehabilitated but only to a point. Past that, the soul-sickness of akrasia, or lack of self-control that contradicts good judgment, is terminal. It is a theme enacted in Oedipus Rex, Sophocles’s cautionary tale written around 430 B.C. Believing himself to be above the gods (we might say above the truth), Oedipus unwittingly becomes the agent of his own undoing until he is forced to follow his fate to its tragic end. For the Greeks, humility and hubris are expressions of the light and dark aspects of the human soul, respectively. Plato writes about them as black and white horses that must be reigned in by reason, anticipating Jung somewhat by two millennia. We are now living through a compensatory time in our national and global history; the pendulum of the long denied shadow has swung the other way, expressing itself as a return to populism and a rejection of more democratic values, but behind the scenes, the dialectic continues to operate. When the monster, imprisoned overlong, is set loose on the countryside, chaos and destruction follow. Perhaps when the dark truth of the national psyche, its “hour come round at last” as Yeats puts it, has done enough damage, the pendulum will return more to center, and we will have found a way to make peace with the shadow that lives within us all.
21 April, 2018
Men are disturbed not by things,
but by the view which they take of them.
Rejection takes many forms, none of them pleasant. We may be rejected by someone to whom we’re romantically attracted, passed over for a promotion, judged harshly by an adult child who feels resentful about wrongs we had no idea we’d committed, treated with blithe inconsiderateness by someone we had thought was a friend, and so on. Clients sometimes come to philosophical counseling in the throes of rejection, tormented by unanswerable questions—”How could he/she do this?”—with their peace of mind and sense of self-worth in tatters.
Philosophically, they’re stuck in a stance that is essentially the opposite of the one adopted by the ancient Stoics, who taught acceptance with poise and equanimity of those “natural” unfoldings of fate that are “indifferent” to us. These clients themselves often realize that they’re caught up in a massive overreaction, not because being rejected by someone, especially someone about whom we care a great deal, doesn’t hurt, but because the suffering such an experience typically brings can be so intense, we may feel that we can’t survive it, that our very life and identity are at stake.
What all this drama misses is what we might think of as the “myth of rejection.” an idea that explains and even brings within reach the wisdom that allowed the Stoics to remain self-possessed and steady in the face of adversity. Seeing through the myth of rejection involves what various therapeutic and educational modalities call a “reframe,” which means a new way of looking at a situation. It’s a good word, because the “re-” prefix implies rightly that what’s being reframed is already framed. Put another way, it’s not the rejection that the client suffers but his or her story about it, the meaning and significance the client has assigned to it, which frame the experience in a certain light. Immersed in suffering, the client rarely recognizes that it is this framing that is in a real sense creating the experience as the experience it is, and that there are other ways to frame it that are far friendlier, to understate the matter. By helping the client to come out of immersion in his or her framing, the philosophical counselor reveals a hitherto hidden element of choice, so that the client, from this higher vantage, can see his or her role in creating the suffering that seemed up to that moment to be entirely a matter of factual conditions, “out there,” indifferent to the client’s anguish. To see that the hands about one’s throat are one’s own is instantly liberating, since the client is not suffering through any conscious choice, but as a result of an unwitting choice that must be brought into conscious awareness to be revised. We hurt ourselves only because we don’t recognize our complicity in turning pain into suffering. As the saying goes, “He who writes can rewrite.”
The myth of rejection begins to come into focus in a reframing that calls us to a deeper honesty than immersion in suffering has acknowledged. It takes only a few questions to make this clear to even the most deeply immersed client. In session, little more is required than asking questions that speak directly to the client’s self-respect, which gets passed over in the Sturm und Drang of having been rejected. In the case of an unrequited romantic attraction, for example, the counselor might ask the client, “Do you really want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you?” The question cuts through all the drama and goes to the heart of the truth, and no client has ever as much as hesitated to answer this question with a resounding no. “Then,” the counselor asks, “what have you really lost?” “Really” here means, of course, “in truth,” and in truth, no client who has been rejected would choose consciously to be treated that way. All that we lose when we’re rejected by someone, it turns out, is something we don’t want. What was a calamity is transmuted by the alchemy of philosophical dialogue into useful, perhaps even saving information and direction. The truth always sets us free, provided we meet it with the willingness of the student—to be shown, to learn, to move more deeply into our life and experience. There is a liberating clarity in truthfulness that allows rejection to be just another step on our journey, and beyond that, a golden opportunity to rise above disappointment and recognize the treasure buried there.
31 March, 2018
The heartbreaking problem of disturbed individuals obtaining semiautomatic weapons, carrying them onto school grounds, and in a matter of minutes, gunning down children and destroying their families, can be solved simply and readily. All assault rifles and other weapons designed for war must be banned immediately from public access, and thorough background checks be carried out before any firearm can be purchased. The right of every child to attend school and grow up free of fear for his or her life and safety unquestionably supersedes the unqualified right to “bear arms” in the mind of anyone with a conscience. Furthermore, funding should be allocated and made available immediately for mentorship and substantial mental health resources within school communities around the country with an emphasis on early detection of students struggling with problems likely to lead to violence. Going forward, the failure of Congress to take these remedial steps should be construed as an abdication of its responsibility to safeguard the innocent that amounts to enabling mass murder. In keeping with the most basic human values, any legislator who turns away from this overriding duty either through supporting the continued availability of semiautomatic weapons or through inaction should be deemed unfit to hold office.
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on 14 February. No words are adequate to console you in the face of this senseless and brutal act. Know that your grief is felt by many around the country and the world. Our thoughts and best wishes for recovery are with you in this terrible hour.
24 February, 2018
Philosophical counseling often focuses on “ownership” by helping the client to identify and acknowledge responsibility for the part he is playing in whatever troubling situation led him to schedule a session. Once the client is willing to do this, a great deal can change, often quickly and dramatically. This shouldn’t be surprising. Certainly much wasted effort, frustration, and suffering follow from trying to control what lies beyond our will, a simple, far-reaching truth that the ancient Stoics made the cornerstone of their philosophy—but we do as much damage by refusing to acknowledge and accept responsibility that is rightly ours, and this is something that philosophical counseling seems uniquely suited to point out and put right, sometimes in the blink of an eye.
Happiness, peace of mind—what the Greeks called the “well-ordered soul” and considered the foundation of happiness and “the good life”—as it turns out, requires a certain balance, so that we own what is ours but not what is not ours. Achieving this balance may mean “disowning” any responsibility we’ve misappropriated, a pervasive problem certainly no less serious than the problem of ownership denied. With this disowning of responsibilities that are not ours, many of the ills that plague us undergo a spontaneous remission—victimhood, enabling, persecuting, rescuing, and other elements of codependency, to name a few.
There are numerous other things that it’s a good idea to disown besides excessive responsibility. False beliefs, contradictions, a sense of entitlement, hubris, detrimental life script promptings and prohibitions, magical thinking and other exaggerations of the will, and the pernicious assumption that happiness and the good life can be found in outer conditions are at the top of the list. Many philosophical counseling sessions end up identifying one or more of these culprits hiding in the shadows of the client’s psyche, covertly wreaking havoc and relentlessly screening out the truth and the better choices that swing into view the moment the truth is faced and acknowledged.
Victimhood is always a good thing to disown. So is blame in all its forms, both obvious and subtle. Exporting our authority by blaming others or outer conditions for our fate or how we feel also is something to lose, and the sooner the better. The beliefs that lead us to embrace philosophical errors constitute what Socrates called “false knowledge,” which arises out of conceit. A belief of this sort is like a burning coal we hold tightly in our hands, suffering while we condemn the coal. It isn’t the coal’s fault that we willfully refuse to let go and end our suffering. A hot coal is a hot coal; it can’t be anything else, and only a fool would try to change its nature. This is basic Aristotle, whose laws of thought tell us that a thing is what it is, and never what it isn’t. It seems too obvious to need saying. Yet this is precisely the sort of obvious truth that we muck up when we become attached, willful, immersed in error, and so on—when we misappropriate conclusions, then assume them, then expect others to fall in step with them and complain why they don’t, until we’re left wondering why everything seems to work against us.
Max Freedom Long, who brought Huna to the West, wrote a bit of verse that beautifully expresses the wisdom of disowning what isn’t ours:
And if someone has hurt me deep,
And no amends are made,
I ask the Light to balance all.
I count the debt as paid.
This is talking about forgiveness—in this context, the forgiveness of an emotional debt. Many have struggled with the implicit instruction of the verse, and found Freedom Long’s words enigmatic. What “Light” is he talking about here? On what does he base the assumption that this Light, whatever it is, can and will “balance all?” Can we really simply choose to divest ourselves of a deep hurt inflicted when “no amends are made?” It is a shame that Huna has been pressed into the service of “law of attraction” peddlers who do a great disservice by fostering the bizarre idea that the reality around us, including others, is nothing more than a construct of our consciousness, an idea made all the more seductive by the undeniable fact that there certainly is some degree of correspondence between reality as we observe it and the consciousness of the observer. But they go too far. It is the same problem stirred up by New Thought practitioners who claim that the roots of illness in others lie hidden in the healer’s beliefs about them, and that in order to “treat” the sick person effectively and “demonstrate” a healing, one need only treat whatever belief one is harboring that allegedly is showing up as the illness. “The Secret” and other popular consciousness-as-cause models capitalize on this confusion, which begins and ends in solipsism, magical thinking, the aggrandizing of the will, the denial of the otherness of others, and similar aberrations. Huna, too, recognizes the profound and liberating truth that it is not so much situations that we suffer when we suffer, but rather our reactions to them, the meanings we assign to them, the stories we keep telling ourselves about them. This truth does not count against otherness, certainly. It does not deny the responsibility that someone may carry for having inflicted a deep hurt and never making amends. All of that remains intact alongside the key realization that, while we can’t control the will or choices of others any more than we can control or perhaps even influence the moving hand of our fate, we have a great deal to say about how we engage these things. So, while our reality is forged by what the classical Greeks understood as character, it is not only that. It exists apart from us in its own right but interacts with us, and does so at the level of our beliefs and assumptions, our conclusions and paradigms, our stories and values, which reach out, as it were, to color and shape the quality of that reality.
Freedom Long’s words put us on notice that the debt is not ours to carry, or at least that we have a choice about it. Carrying a grudge is like drinking poison to punish another or holding onto the burning coal to make a point. Whether there is any “Light” that can or will balance the debt is beside the point. We have been hurt. What sense does it make to keep hurting ourselves over it? Forgiveness doesn’t let the offender “off the hook.” It mitigates the pain of the one who was wronged, letting him or her off the hook through the liberating power of enlightened disowning. “I count the debt as paid” isn’t meant to be a strategy for moving the mysterious levers of manifestation, as the law-of-attraction proponents would have us believe, not a way of effecting a change in the other or the world, but an unfailing way of effecting a change in ourselves. It means, “This debt is paid as far as I’m concerned. I wash my my hands of it.” As we are not constituted to own grudges and resentments, and as usurping ownership of them invariably throws us into the traps and snares of hubris, it makes sense to disown them, and to do so without delay. The “Light” that can “balance all” by counting the debt as “paid,” it turns out, shines in each of us, waiting to be released in the refusal to own what we are far better off disowning. When the client’s focus shifts from projection, exporting authority, blame, and misappropriated ownership to how he or she is engaging and might engage more consciously and truthfully, many things come right.
It may help to remember that good can stand in the way of better. Inevitably, we have to leave behind who we’ve been to become who we can be.
20 February, 2018
No pressure, no diamonds.
| Thomas Carlyle
Just as immense pressure forms diamonds deep in the earth, so it is the pressure of adversity that transforms a human life into something precious, beautiful, valuable, and rare. Remembering this instruction, we might be slow to succumb to both victimhood and enabling others, since we would recognize that it is in the fires of adversity that character is forged, and that we don’t help ourselves when we complain or resent our lot, nor others when, in relieving them of certain pressures, we unwittingly rob them of needed lessons. There is no doubt that adversity is a great teacher the moment we become willing to be its student, and that we’re made far more brilliant by what we lose than by what we win. Despite the prevailing culture of indulgence and entitlement, it is, as Lao tze noted 2,500 years ago, the “emptiness at the center” that makes something useful. Running around the world trying desperately to fill any frisson of that emptiness with banal social media “likes,” romantic and sexual encounters procured on dating sites, and distracted consumerism, we may so lose track of the diamonds waiting to be dug out of us that we suffer an odd sense of impoverishment and ennui in the midst of all our possessions and achievements, and wonder why it is that, no matter what we do, we never feel happy.
Adversity is clearly underrated and worse, made something to avoid at all costs—as though life should be free of hardship (and so, of challenges), and discomfort is regarded as symptomatic. This particular and sadly pervasive form of “soul disorder,” as the classical Greeks regarded it, produces among many other lamentable things, the bipartisan infighting and pettiness that has taken the U.S. Congress and White House hostage, producing a mounting pressure without the diamonds. This is the pressure created just before things start falling apart, when leaders succumb to unenlightened self-interest and winning at all costs, when chaos ascends to power, the world is played as a zero-sum game with no one in a position of leadership willing to take responsibility for the state of his or her soul, and even the trivial adversity of disagreement becomes intolerable.
We do not need to seek out adversity. Adversity will find us soon enough—another great lesson from the Greeks. Fate favors no one forever, and the gods seem to take special pleasure in bringing hubris to its knees. Those who, while never seeking out adversity, have nevertheless made peace with it, who can accept it as an occasion to transcend and endure, who use it to improve their character and practice resilience, who recognize that hard times compel us to find creative and often surprising solutions—they will be here, living and learning, long after the children of entitlement have been humbled and forgotten. Every dog has its day. When the dogs take over the household, they may do considerable damage before things return to normal. And while the dogs themselves are unlikely to benefit from the chaos they create, those who live in the house may use the damage done as an opportunity for self-examination, and be made better, richer, and stronger for it.
20 January, 2018