Sitting here in my beach chair on this incredibly beautiful afternoon; comfortable in my flip-flops, swim shorts, and T-shirt; gazing up at the few wispy clouds swimming across the Carolina blue sky; remembering my life-long love affair with summers on the soft white sand of the Carolina beaches -- I am painfully mindful that this is not one of those summers.
Nope! I am sitting here on our back deck surrounded by lush green foliage of our yard's shrubs and long-leaf pines, but isolated physically from neighbors, friends, and family -- especially our delightful granddaughter in California. Isolated is too strong a word for our condition of lock-down during this Covid-19 pandemic. We can venture out for essential services. But although some of our friends and acquaintances stretch the perimeter of safety, we recognize that the spiking of infections wants us not to venture too far, not to believe that we are over this menace that lurks everywhere and continues to reveal ongoing new ways of attacking young and old.
It is wearisome, this new way of life. It is not natural to maintain distance from others; it seems bizarre to keep our faces covered by masks, and to think twice before touching any surface. It is exhausting to never know for sure who we can trust, what we can trust, when we might ever be able to trust again.
But this uncertainty reflects a deeper concern, does it not? I am thinking of the tension between trust and fear. We came into the world gasping for breath and are greeted by lights, noise, sensations that we had never experienced before. Then, there are also the early experiences of our species when we faced danger as part of daily life. This was, in Tennyson's words, "nature red in tooth and claw." We fought for our existence against natural disasters of fire, wind, earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, destruction of habitats, and strange tribes of people who battled us for resources of food, shelter, mates, and the right to trailways. This is to say nothing about the animals who wanted to eat us before we could eat them.
And have you noticed how many politicians now use the word "fight?" They thrust out their
chests, stick out their elbows, and assure us that they will fight for us. The political arena has now become mythologized as a battleground. Apparently this works if we are to gauge success by the number of politicians who ride behind the banner of martial arms and a call to war in which the victor will be the one who fights most aggressively!
Lord, have mercy! My plea for mercy is not just for the "opponents" who will be vanquished in the would-be fight, but rather for all of us who have to listen to this ballyhoo that inflames our amygdalas with biochemical resources long evolved in our torturous history of fear and aggression.
Think of the centuries it has taken to evolve such a complex system in which the amygdala sends signals to the pituitary gland, which in turn sends signals to the adrenal gland that releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) which finally results in such body changes as an increase in heart rate and blood pressure making possible flight or fight.
We give thanks for our bodies that can protect us either by running when we need to get away, or by fighting when we need to -- or want to. Clearly, we have evolved over many centuries to do battle. And, as the saying goes, if you have a hammer you likely are going to look for nails to use that hammer. In other words, if we have evolved to look for fear -- which we have -- then we are going to fear.
The problem is that we learned to fear before we learned to trust. We do better at waging wars than making peace. What politician can possibly hope to win an election on a peace platform today? So they pose as fighters and tell us about all that we most fear, rather than encourage us to consider what we can accomplish together. I say this as a veteran trained in the way of war with service in Korea as a forward observer and then Executive Officer of an artillery firing battery. So I know very well the necessity of being able to fight, because there are times when we must. There are times when we must because the forces that stoke fear and aggression and domination always stand ready to pounce, and we live in a time when some of those powers are on the move.
However, before I leave my reference to the training provided me by the military to fight, I am glad to remember as well that I was trained not to be "trigger-happy," not to fire out of fear. We were trained to hold our fear in the trust that what we thought we feared might not be fearful at all. We were trained to trust that most people genuinely do want peace, to trust that we would accomplish more working to resolve conflicts than antagonize them, to trust the words on our one-cent piece, the lowly penny, that gives us the formula for peace.
Look at your penny if you do not believe me. On one side you will find the words, "In God We Trust," with the word LIBERTY beside the image of Lincoln. And on the other side of the penny is an image with the Lincoln Memorial, a reminder of the union for which Lincoln worked to preserve, keeping faith (trust) with our past and the dream of all we might yet become as a nation -- a legacy held "in trust" for future generations. We hold the future of our society "in trust," not in fear.
And so, I stretch out in my beach chair, shake off the sand on my flip-flops from last year's visit to the beach, and notice a poem trying to come to mind. I would love to share it with you.
Once in this very world that very year
there came a day
perfect in each dimension:
Width, Depth, Height.
From up on the dunes,
stalky with sea oats drooping with seed
white sand burned, dazzling,
shimmering endlessly to left, to right,
the long white stretch to blue infinity,
Eyes exulting in a blue complexity
of expanding depths and heights.
Pure white foamed along the line
clean from right to left
always right to left
covering and being covered.
Whiter than surf, white clouds cooled,
billowing all over the blue heavens
high, higher, highest.
Our friends laughed stepping,
splashing in white clouds
cooling in blue skies
caught in wet sand;
And a Presence, long absent,
moved once again on the waters.
-- E.S. Worldrige
Winner of Leitch Memorial Prize, 1975
Poetry Society of Virginia
At the moment of this writing, like many of you, I am "locked in." Gradually, we are beginning to emerge from the shelter of our homes that have protected and isolated us during the pandemic of a submicroscopic enemy, the coronavirus. Hidden behind our masks and following the health officials' recommendations to maintain distance form others, wash hands frequently, and avoid touching our faces and other people, most of us have complied until the past few days. Then all hell seems to have burst into our cities with protests and rage, confronting our first-line defenders of police and fire-fighters with threatening outbursts of menacing crowds throwing rocks, breaking windows of businesses, and blocking traffic.
The inert anger building for centuries, years, months, weeks, and days erupted when a police officer in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis, Minnesota, pinned George Floyd to the ground with the officer's leg on Floyd's neck, blocking his air passage and ignoring Floyd's desperate gasps that he could not breathe. No one came to the dying man's help.
We feel overwhelmed -- all of us, but especially if we are people of color. We cannot pretend to be surprised. This has happened before.
And the tragic, scary realization that goes to our mind when we allow ourselves to think about it is this very fact: the abuse of minorities -- of all kinds -- is woven within the fabric of our society. What does this mean? What does it mean that we are in this mess? Is this our nature? What is human nature like? What is the nature of persons, of groups?
There are things we do know about this because the question of human nature has been asked in one form or another since we evolved, slithering out of the salty muck where homo sapiens originated and began to assert ourselves in Mother Nature by developing over centuries a consciousness that permits us to examine ourselves, our motives, how we differ from other animals, how we prosper, how our infants thrive to continue our evolutionary exploration not only of our planetary home but our solar system as well.
And this is what we have learned. It all begins with trust. We have been taught that by organizational psychology (Jack Gibb, Trust), psychosocial psychology (Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society), as well as psychoanalytic depth psychology (Carl Jung, Collected Works). I mention only these three names although by this time in the early twenty-first century, there are many others in a procession of teachers, researchers, parents, counselors, ministers, and clinicians who have witnessed with their own experience the truth and power of trust as the beginning point of human development, group life, and civilization's well-being.
Dr. Jack Gibb was a major figure at the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine during their creative work developing team dynamics, communication in groups, T-Group methodology, and leadership development. Working during the fertile period of the mid-to-late twentieth century, Gibb consulted with many of the major corporations in the world. However, he became known as well for the application of his ground-breaking work as it applied to education, the military, religious systems, and organizational life in general.
The simplicity and elegance of his process made group development accessible to diverse groups of people who worked with small and large groups in various settings. Basically, in lay terms, Jack Gibb stressed the four stages of a healthy group. They were:
TRUST FORMATION: The beginning issue for all group members is the matter of inclusion. Am I safe in this group? Am I included? Do I show inclusion of others? If so, then we move more easily to the next stage.
DATA FLOW: Group members feel free in a trusting atmosphere to share ideas, to agree and disagree, to build up the insights of everyone, to move toward a group consensus, and to resolve conflict as it arises, thus making possible the third stage.
GOAL FORMATION: All groups exist to accomplish some goal(s). The goals are build upon a foundation of trust, and from that vantage point the group works to establish the fourth and final stage.
CONTROL: This is the stage where everything that has gone before pays dividends culminating in the system of control that includes all the necessary data, making possible the achievement of the goal(s) projected by the group. And there is a by-product as well, which is the satisfaction and fulfillment of group members who have accomplished a worthy piece of work while establishing satisfying, meaningful relationships.
Before leaving Gibb, however, it is worthwhile to note another feature in his four-stage theory of group development. This feature is the very pragmatic one of determining where and how a group of people working together may stall in their process.
For example, if a group cannot establish the organizational control necessary to accomplish its desired aim, Gibb suggested you go back one step to consider what the goal(s) may be. Perhaps the goal is not clear or all members have not really accepted that goal.
What happens then if you determine that, in fact, some problem remains in defining the goal which needs to be shared by the group as a whole. If this is the case that the goal is either not clear or not accepted by some significant members of the group, the problem likely will be found in the previous stage of data flow.
In other words, more information needs to be uncovered. Or, perhaps, a divergent view needs to be given more consideration before the group as a whole can bring its full commitment to the formation of a goal.
But, finally, what if more data cannot be forthcoming? Are there group members who have psychologically withdrawn from the process? Are there members who are afraid to speak, either because they have been criticized or have never felt empowered to enter the "give-and-take" by which issues are aired, conflicts resolved, problems solved, and a common purpose established?
If this cannot take place, then most often it is the case that trust has given way to mistrust, or that trust development did not occur in the very early life of the group. This is the most crucial stage in any group's life, not goal-setting or goal implementation, but the establishment of trust.
My brief sketch of group life, its stages, and its underlying dynamic of trust serves as a prototype for many different kinds of groups -- as well as for our society in general, do you see? This is so fundamental for our common life, because what is a society but a composite of many groups in which people mingle, work, play, worship, create, and build structures of enduring empowerment for the good of everyone.
And it begins with trust. Trust is the great lubricant for the working engines of a democratic society. When we work at trust, we see dissolve the forces that work against our general well-being: greed, racism, empiricism, nationalism, domination, dogmatism, and egoism.
This is our human nature, to weave our lives together with the very vulnerable, thin thread of trust. In fact, when we look around, we see that the agency of trust -- its emotion, its social dynamic, its substantive reality in the lives of human beings and all animals -- this thing we call trust apparently has its being within NATURE itself. This must be why we use the evocative term "Mother Nature," that arouses within each of us the sense of protection, nurture, empowerment, and well-being.
And now, for the moment, my last question: What is trust?
Let's hold that question until next month.
You will recognize that I have borrowed a line from the sixth chapter of the New Testament's book that carries the title, "The Revelation to John." "Revelation" is a translation of the Greek word, "apocalypse." The word means an uncovering, a revelation expressed in symbolic language dealing with a time of catastrophe and tragedy that appears as world-ending, so severe are the events.
People refer to our present coronavirus pandemic often in apocalyptic tones. This is understandable because as of this writing in the United States alone we have around 1,356,620 cases and 80,422 deaths and rising. Furthermore, we are experiencing the most severe economic downturn since the Depression, there is no assurance that the end is really in sight, most of us remain in lock-down status, there is a cantankerous debate about when we can return to work places, and we must continue to wear masks, wash hands regularly, and practice social distancing. And we endure a failure of leadership in the highest level to provide trustworthy information as well as to model and guide the public i appropriate behavior.
As one infectious disease medical doctor said to me, it is a mess. This means we are continuing to learn new information about COVID-19 as we go along. And we go along state-by-state, county-by-county, and often city-by-city.
No wonder we linger under a cloud of heavy foreboding, and seemingly apocalyptic uncertainty. Friends, family, acquaintances, and public personalities are getting sick and dying. And yet, a prevailing mantra sounds throughout the land, "We will get through this together." Which we will.
Be of good heart! In the midst of this sorrow and death-dealing time, and in the words of the '60's still resonating in my ears, "Keep the faith"! To do that, be sure to grab hold of whatever humor you can.
Toward that end, Though you might enjoy reading this short message sent me by a care-giver who daily faces the uncertainty of our time and the anxiety of his patients. I am including his message, sent me this week, in full. Please understand his irreverent tone as only one of his responses to the seriousness of our apocalyptic moment.
RIDING LAWNMOWERS AND THE MEN WHO COMMANDEER THEM
Help! I am surrounded by seven very hungry, angry, obnoxious, deafening, hyperactive, abhorrent, roaring, vicious, bullying, and brainless riding lawnmowers and the men who commandeer them. And did I say relentless? Or socially insensitive? Or unbelievably clueless that there might be other people in the world who would like to sit quietly on their back decks, porches, lawns, hammocks, and beach chairs which will not see a beach and feel the warm, soothing, healing beach sand anytime in the foreseeable future?
But let me not presume to get carried away about these late 20th century machines that function as a secondary status symbol for the suburbanites whose chief marker of achievement in life was to grow the perfect, weedless, disease-less, greenest lawn as a measure of success and winner of the annual prize of first place in the neighborhood's rating of best lawns. Oh yes, such lawns command attention of the parents who ferry their children to various classes and events that will prepare the children to grow up and manicure lawns such as these!
But, pardon me, I do digress. For I was talking about those monstrous machines and the men whose major delight in their lifeless days seems to be the moment they can hop on those sharp-toothed devils and ride off -- not into the sunset unfortunately, but beside the neighbor's house whose occupants might be trying to entertain a guest outside, perhaps even an elderly aging person whose hearing is not all that good anyway, and who had not been invited outside to talk to a live human being since the pandemic began some months ago, an age now lost in time before time itself was consumed by riding lawnmowers and the men who commandeer them.
But another thousand apologies for my losing my train of thought. Sorry! I could not hear myself think because of the mind-controlling noise outside.
O yes, I was about to say something about those men who commandeer these strutting riding machines, all of which come in colors as loud as the noises they belch. However, as I was saying, or not saying because my train of thought continues to be interrupted by this creeping, gnawing interloper grinding up the dust beside my house, pulverizing the grass, chasing the squirrels and rabbits who still try to create their humble little habitats within the shrubs where we promised them they would always be safe -- an age long before we knew of the terror of men who seem to have nothing to do during pandemics but to jump on their riding mowers and play General Patton riding atop his M46 tank, commanding a battalion of men who also wanted to ride atop their tanks in pursuit of the enemy's tanks.
Ah, finally, I got back to where I was attempting to direct my attention, just before my neighbor made another swipe at my bordering yard that has not yet surrendered ! Although our cat looks at me quizzically, wondering either, "Why do you not have one of those?" or "What can you do to make them stop?"
But, as I was attempting to say before a loud noise like an explosion shook my study and I had to investigate if some plane had fallen on us out of the sky... No, I conclude, it is the neighbor behind us. He has a generator -- several, in fact, it seems -- and he was powering up for some other adventure which complements the chorus of several other riding lawnmowers in the neighborhood, which when they all get going at the same time with a cacophony of grunts, wheezes, pops, whines, grinds, and rattles would have made General Patton proud.
There, I think I came upon what I may have been attempting to get at about men who seem to love riding their riding lawnmowers during pandemics when they cannot find other "manly" things to do. They just cannot help themselves. That is the long and short of it. If we do not have a war with tanks, if we cannot explore outer space, ride in a submarine under the ice caps, chase other cars in a circle around a race track, or pummel other men in a boxing ring -- men can claim their place in nature by subduing the lawn grass with their riding lawnmowers.
Before I forget it, however, let me put in a good word about these men. They dress up sharply in their red outfits and polish up their riding lawnmowers so they look particularly splendid in our neighborhood's annual Christmas parade, always led by a local fire truck that tests its horn at the smiling neighbors who proudly salute the passing riding lawnmowers and the men who ride them.
Not all of us have to contend with the riding lawnmowers as does my friend. But each of us has other "monsters" with which we must deal. Remember, however, just like those riding lawnmowers and the men who commandeer them, this too shall pass! It is not a rider on a pale horse or a man on a riding lawnmower, but whatever, this too shall pass.
Of all the dreaded calamities that can happen to us, viral infection is in the top tier. Out of sight, so tiny it cannot be seen by the naked human eye, so aggressive in its attack upon the invaded host, so undeterred in its natural expansion, and so initially mysterious in its origin and potential weakness, the microbe we call "virus" threatens individuals and groups, organizations and even countries. We can go to war against this deadly invader, but not with our tanks and planes. We respond with scientific knowledge, skillful counter-measures, risky human intervention at the point of the viral attack, and protective caution where we are vulnerable.
And the vulnerability extends beyond our bodies. Even our computers are subject to attack by a foreign agent we label as a "virus." Neither are we mentally immune to a viral attack. In fact, it may well be that psychic infections are actually more commonplace than physical ones. This will become the central focus of my blog. But for the moment, let me begin with the matter at hand, our fear-driven, media-focused obsession with the Coronavirus that threatens all of us.
As of this writing, the graph of persons infected with the Coronavirus continues to rise here at home. We are in a mess: anxious about the disease itself that may take our life and that of others as well; anxious that the markets will slide lower and lower as we watch our savings disappear; anxious that leadership on the national political level was not prepared and remains an uncertainty; anxious that we might not have enough food, supplies, resources, and/or access to the normal medical, dental,, legal, psychological, spiritual, and social support we may need; and also anxious that a way of life we took for granted has been taken from us, exposing the fragile platform upon which modernity has been erected, where we create a bubble of safety, security, and a general existence of well-being that we thought we could manipulate to last our lifetime.
Of course, things might turn out to be not as bad as our anxieties lead us to believe. Under the leadership of some of our governors and local officials, as well as the CDC, and other health officials, we may stymie the onslaught of the virus and master the resources to take care of the persons who fall in the path of this potential disaster. Also, if we are blessed, it may be that our doctors, nurses, and all care-providers will be able to hold the line before they collapse and become victims themselves not only of the virus but the overbearing exhaustion they are called upon to endure.
So, yes, things may not turn out to be as disastrous as they could be. But, in any case, a larger question waves its hands to get our attention. When, and if, we can look away from the disease itself, we might consider not only the failed leadership that left us vulnerable to this pandemic, but the lifestyle that also contributed to the catastrophic "surprise" that has ripped away the deceptions that entertained us and hid the darker side of human existence: the impermanence of all things, and the sufferings of aging, disease, death, and meaninglessness.
Which brings us to ask these questions. Where do we focus our attention during the "good times?" How do we avoid chasing after the distractions that divert our attention from the dark side of human existence? How do we balance the joy of human existence without falling prey to the fallacy of human omnipotence? How do we find a center that unites our impermanence and finitude with our human potential to create and destroy?
Hold to that thought of having a "center." Just what does that mean? From my vantage point as a pastoral counselor and psychoanalyst trained in Jungian psychology, I am thinking of two functions in the human personality where we might experience a center.
The first is the deep Center of the collective unconscious which makes possible our experience of the God-image. This is the summon bonum, the Highest Good, or as the theologian Paul Tillich would call it, the very Ground of Being, not bound by time, space, or even human personality. This "Center" is the emanating Power of Being out of which existence unfolds and within which the experience of the Holy or Sacred may be realized. Obviously, even to talk about such a phenomenon calls upon a mythopoeic language that borrows from the poet more than from the scientist in her laboratory.
And so I have to leave there this description of the deep Center, realizing it longs for a concrete specificity that poetry and religious language cannot fully provide. There are musings, however; there are intimations, as Wordsworth would say, of immortality in which we hold a deep knowing of our soul, "our life's star that had somewhere else its setting and comes from afar."
But in addition to that deep Center in the foundational depth of the psyche's collective unconscious, there is also a center within the personality's executive function, the ego. Within that center, which bubbles along the psychological membrane of consciousness, a person holds awareness of memories, lessons learned, mistakes made, loves lost and won, friendships formed and lost, personal identities that have floated along through life's stages -- as a child, a young person, an adult, an elder who may look back with satisfaction and gratitude or unhappiness and a tragic sense of having never fulfilled one's short and precious life. Clearly, with the self-conscious reflections of the ego, there is an executive within the command module that operates with its own internal guidance system.
So now we come to a most important question: How is that internal guidance system I am calling the center of the ego, how is it oriented? What are its values? What is its moral code and from what source? Is it healthy and sane? Or is it defective? Could it be that a personality could be misguided, misdirected, misinformed, missing its moral function, a most important function that guides the individual on making life's difficult decisions, understanding difficult and dangers missions with an intent to serve the greatest good in a way that is honorable and furthers the humane aspiration to make possible the health, safety, sanity, and general well-being of everyone, but especially the poor and dispossessed who cannot help themselves.
Is it possible that one could be deficient in moral judgement and psychological health? Is it possible that one could be so oriented toward self-aggrandizement that the group, the nation, the people become ensnared in his polished charm, yearning for greatness above all. Is it possible one could lose one's soul in the all-obsessing grab for power, wealth, fame, and adulation? Is it possible that one could feel entitled to become the ruler of all because of a self-deception of greatness? Are these things possible? Yes. Each and all of them are possible.
They are not only possible; they have become our fate. For we have been infected with the most dreaded virus of all, and that is the psychic infection of an obsession for money and all the titillating toys it can buy. It is the virus that will destroy not just our bodies but our souls. It is a psychic infection to be feared much, much more than the Coronavirus, because this psychic infection attacks not just the cells of our bodies but the deepest aspirations of the human soul.
Wrapped in the garb of business success, huckstered in the ballyhoo of "I have become great and so can you," floated in public "snake-oil medicine shows" on TV, and supported by would-be followers who are afraid to acknowledge the lies of the charmer, the infection spreads.
Is the United States less and less a Christian nation? Nicholas Kristof shares why he thinks that might be the case. In his New York Times article published on October 27, 2019, titled "Less and Less a Christian Nation," Kristof presented the following facts:
In other words, one can be religious but not be Christian. This leads us to consider not just the matter of statistics concerning Christian faith and participation in communities of faith. Rather, we are led to ask what is happening to us in terms of human nature to be "religiously observant." The fundamental question then becomes what is religion? What does the Pew study group consider religion to be? What exactly are they observing in their study?
But, for that matter, what do you and I mean when we talk about religion? When people say they are "spiritual" but not religious, what do they mean? How would you define "religion" and "spiritual?" This is important because we are talking here about what it means to be a human. Is religion and the practice of religion simply a relic from the past, some old belief or superstition such as fears of black cats crossing our paths, breaking mirrors, walking under ladders, avoiding the number 666, etc.? It is true that a person could make a religion of any of those superstitions, and the reason for this is because the religious impulse is deep and universal. However, this does not mean religion is an old superstition. In other words, religion is not simply a belief; it is an attitude that is archetypal, an attitude of mind that might be "seized" by anything that carries a numinous character -- a character that is strongly emotional, exerting a strong influence on our mind and feelings.
Carl Jung defines religion not as a creed or dogma but as an archetypal encounter in which a person is moved profoundly by "powers" such as spirits, daemons, gods, laws, ideas, ideals which are experienced as powerful, dangerous, helpful, or meaningful enough to be devoutly worshipped and/or loved. (Collected Works, Vol. 11, para. 8). In other words, religion is more than "a particular symptom of faith and worship," as defined by The New Oxford Shorter Dictionary. Not just a system or organization, religion is:
... the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude,
so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they
may consider the divine.
This definition of religion was offered by William James in his Gifford Lectures on natural religion delivered at Edinburgh, 1902-1902, and recorded in his book, The Varieties of Religious Experience (See page 42). And while his definition and language in general read today as somewhat quaint, nonetheless the book contains gems of understanding on page after page. James continues to inform, stimulate, and challenge us after more than a century, because he plumbed the depths of our psyche with an understanding that grounds religion in the nature of human personality.
But, to continue James' thesis on the nature of religion, the encounter with whatever we consider "divine" does not end with what happens in our "solitude." Because the religious experience is dynamic and transformative of our inner life, the experience wants to be shared, to be communicated and anchored within a circle of others -- family, friends, personal groups.
And thus is born the system and organization of what most people may understand religion to be. From the primal religious experience come (1) adoration of the founder; (2) words, writings, and stories of the founder; (3) a system of beliefs that formulate into creeds, dogmas, traditions; (4) a code of ethics; (5) a cosmology that attempts to explain the nature of the world, its origin, its possible ending, its place within the universe; (6) a spirituality that guides followers in dealing with the sufferings of disease, aging, death, the threat of meaninglessness, the catastrophes that come upon the group; (7) worship experiences and rites of passage that guide the followers through life's passages including birth, coming of age, courtship, marriage, and funerals; (8) the establishment of institutions in the greater society to further the growth of life, such as hospitals, universities, places of worship, and protection of the natural environment; (9) the formulation and enactment of policies to combat disease, overcome violence, support understandings of just wars or the affirmation of pacifism, and the establishment of an alliance with the ruling government or in some cases the formation of a theocracy; and (10) the management of media to communicate within the organization as well as to reach outside with commentaries on current events, educational materials regarding the group and its purpose and mission in the world.
Such are the ways of religion when understood as a system or organization. But in the most basic sense, as Jesus of Nazareth would probably answer if asked today, and as William James and Carl Jung were quoted earlier, religion begins as a "way" within the solitude of each human. This is the "Way" of Lao Tzu, the legendary Chinese founder of Taoism. He left this simple description of religion before he went up in the clouds, sometime in the 6-5th century B.C.E., never to be seen again.
The tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.
The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.
Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.
Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.
-- Tao te Ching. Stephen Mitchell, Trans. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Each beginning of a New Year is auspicious. Around the world we press the pause button in our routines of work, play, worship, parenting, love-making, fighting, creating, and planning. We are encouraged to change our lives and the world for the better. New possibilities appear within our reach and our wills; bad habits are recognized for what they are, and our human potential is celebrated. And so I take this moment to wish you a New Year and a New Life worthy of all you are capable of enjoying!
Meanwhile, back in my blog-world, I continue to tell the story of Ava who came to my consulting room carrying the vague but troublesome anxiety of feeling that "something is not right in the world" -- something beyond the everyday concerns commonplace in our everyday existence.
I have called Ava's state of mind "the disorientation of our time," while noting that a major danger for individuals and societies is two-fold. One, such a disorientation can arise imperceptibly, like a slow erosion which goes unnoticed at first. And, two, this disorientation may also be be experienced not only in individuals, but also the collective mind of a people and their institutions.
For example, who can say exactly when the Fascist ideology of Nazi Germany took hold of the German people, blessed as they were in the highest achievements of the West. Scientifically, artistically, philosophically, and intellectually, they were poised to assume leadership in an awakening world that would further the highest ideals of humanity.
And again, to jump to another extreme, consider the lynch mobs of the pre-Civil War southern United States. What hatred, racism, and amusement of human torture occupied the minds of a very warm, hospitable, and otherwise principled people! When did this dangerous disorientation creep over the walls of civility and basic human dignity?
For that matter, what disorientation clouds our minds today, evoking a distinct sense, as with Ava, that "something is wrong." The "cloud" of obfuscation blinds our perception and distorts our judgments. However, we are not entirely without perspective and objectivity. We have lived long enough and experienced enough barbarity in our "modern" times that we have a capacity to jolt ourselves awake when the way becomes muddled and our leaders speak and operate erratically, with bluster in their code of conduct and jingoism as their mode of speech.
Centuries ago, a Japanese Zen monk and swordsman lived and wrote a treatise that reads as if written today. Gifted not only in the honorable way of the sword, Takuan Soho was also a poet, gardener, calligrapher, painter, and tea master. Writing between 1573 and 1645 B.C.E., the old monk challenges us to live "the unfettered mind" with these words:
If you follow the present-day world, you could turn your back on the Way; if
you would not turn your back on the Way, do not follow the world. 1
In this brief statement of warning, Takuan distinguishes between two paths each of us may take: "the present-day world" and "the Way." By his use of "way," the Zen monk, as might be expected, means a state of existence in which the individual lives true to herself, authentically fulfilling her personal claim to human potential. And by "world," Takuan means a state of existence in which disorientation shapes the person's life-trajectory. This latter state of existence is marked by distractions, diversions, and the demonic powers that can arise from the deep unconscious and seize one's life -- in short, a mind that is "fettered."
This dichotomy between "the Way" and the "world" appears throughout the stories of Buddha, Christ, and Jungian dreams. But you as reader already have a sense of what this "breech of being" has meant in your life, as well as how it is playing out in our society at this time. It is a "pull of opposites" that we may experience in our lives each day, just as it also appears in the extremes of group life, and throughout our society.
It is this societal crisis that brought Ava to my consulting room with her disturbing sense that "something is wrong." Ava could not put into words what troubled her. Trapped as we all are within the bizarre, irrational daily dramas of our political scene, Ava couldn't name the threatening spirit that possesses us, creeping into the here-to-fore trusted institutions of our democracy.
I am using the word "spirit" here intentionally. Of course, in Christian theology, Spirit is understood as a manifestation of God and occupies a place within the Trinity: God, Christ and Spirit. But spirit is also used to refer to other animating powers that may or may not be benevolent. In general, "spirit" may be used as a force or power that animates persons, and in depth psychology the word may also be used to describe a feeling and thought that arises from the unconscious with a capacity to take over the person. An individual or group of people may be "possessed" by such a force, leading to ways of thinking and acting not normally observed in the people. Referring back to the people of Nazi Germany and the southern lynch mobs, we could say they were possessed by a spirit -- a spirit that came up from the depths of the human psyche with such force that it formed what we could call a Zeitgeist, a spirit of the time.
If we look closely at our dreams, sometimes we may discover an image of a person, an action, or a place that reflects the spirit of the time. Such an image appeared in Carl Jung's dream of Siegfried. This is the way her remembered the dream on the night of December 18, 1913.
I was with an unknown, brown-skinned man, a savage, in a lonely, rocky
mountain landscape. It was before dawn; the eastern sky was already bright,
and the stars fading. Then I heard Siegfried's horn sounding over the mountains
and I know that we had to kill him. We were armed with rifles and lay in wait
for him on a narrow path over the rocks.
Then Siegfried appeared high on the crest of the mountains in the first ray
of the rising sun. On a chariot made of the bones of the dead he drove at
furious speed down the precipitous slope. When he turned a corner, we shot
at him, and he plunged down, struck dead.
What does the dream mean? How does it reflect the spirit of the time in which Jung lived? Who was Siegfried, and how did he radiate the spirit of Jung's age? Jung struggled to understand the dream; its meaning eluded him until finally it came to him.
... suddenly the meaning of the dream dawned on me. "Why that is the
problem, that is being played out in the world." Siegfried, I thought,
represents what the Germans want to achieve, heroically to impose their
will, have their own way. "Where there is a will there is a way!" I had
wanted to do the same. But now that was no longer possible. The dream
showed that the attitude embodied by Siegfried, the hero, no longer
suited me. Therefore, it had to be killed. 2
(Memories, Dreams, Reflections, p. 180)
There it is, the spirit of the time. We see how it invaded Jung's life as well as the German nation. Such a chilling experience in light of the disastrous wars that devastated Germany alerts us to the phenomenon of psychic possession that may threaten each of us. As we shall see, this was the threat approaching Ava who entered my life with the warning, for me as well as herself: "I feel I am living through a very difficult time. ... something is not right."
Threats can be imperceptible. At what point might a person become aware of a disorientation, one so severe it might result in a fragmentation of one's psyche or at least disturb a person's work and relationships?
Like the frog in a pot of water when the temperature ever so slightly, imperceptibly, rises to the boiling point, how and when do we human beings sense a danger in our environment? With this word, "environment," I am referring not only to the physical world of our habitat, our material world, our physical cosmic structure; I am referring as well to our social, spiritual, artistic, and psychological world -- our many worlds both inner and outer.
In which of these worlds did Ava experience such anxiety that she felt the need to talk to someone about it? Ava and I sat quietly, each waiting for the other to speak. Finally I broke the silence and said, "Tell me a dream. You may remember several, anticipating your session today. Tell me the dream that coms to your mind and seems to want to be shared."
"Well," she replied, "I had begun to write down my dreams the past two or three weeks, but this one came to me last night." Leaning forward slightly and uncrossing her legs, Ava spoke softly and thoughtfully as if she was reading a story from long ago.
I was in a house or structure of some sort with many rooms, very old. There
seemed to be many people sitting or moving about. Some of them talked to
others, but there were none I recognized. I kept passing through the rooms as
if I might be looking for someone or something. I felt increasingly afraid when
I realized we might be locked inside. So maybe I was looking for a key or for
someone to help me find my way through the maze of rooms and let me out.
As best I remember, it was a diverse group of people. Maybe there were many
different functions taking place in the rooms. Like me, some people were
moving around and others sitting but I do not recall any specific chairs or sofas.
And there was another odd thing... I don't remember any lighting except for
candles. That also frightened me. The flames were burning low as if they might
be extinguished in a short while. But no-one appeared to notice or be concerned
except me. And I could not find the owner or manager or even a staff person to
call their attention to the danger. No-one appeared who seemed to be in charge.
That's when I realized I needed to speak to someone, anyone, to see if they
knew what was going on and could help me warn others about the candles but
also to find out if anyone else knew the way out.
"What do you suppose the occasion was?" I asked.
"I am not sure," Ava said. "I was still wondering about that as I recalled the dream. It could have been a reception following a wedding, although the energy in the rooms did not convey that sense of joy and lightness. I wondered also about a gathering of friends, acquaintances, and family after a funeral. Or even the reception for diverse participants in an educational/training event, who may or may not know each other. But the atmosphere was neither somber nor joyful; maybe it could be called anticipating as if we were unsure of what to expect.
"And the candles! What was that about, do you suppose?" I asked her. "Did you notice any lamps or overhead lighting, even chandeliers?"
"That is peculiar," Ava acknowledged. "I cannot imagine there would not have been some kind of lighting in a large house like that. However, the event itself was present time based upon the dress of everyone -- anything from business casual, to physical labor, to semi-formal, I believe. But, back to the candles, there may have been a power failure, even though at the time I thought the candles were for atmosphere and was not allowing for the fact that the candles may well have been the only source of light.
"Do you have any idea what time of day it was?" I asked.
"Well," Ava reflected,"I never saw any light from the outside. The windows, if there were any, must have been closed, but I don't recall even seeing any windows or doors to the outside. Strange. You would think there had to be some somewhere"!
"So," I ventured. "In your dream, you appear to be in a state of mind that might describe the feeling that brought you here. That is the feeling and thought that something is not right. Yes?"
Ava thought for a moment and then quickly replied. "I guess you could say that. But so what? That might be expected that I would dream about my waking state of mind. Right? What does that tell me?"
Realizing that this first dream Ava presented may suggest the deep work to come, I wanted to engage Ava in exploring with me the dream as a symbol of her psychic state, leading us into a vast underground of meanings not only for her life but also for the wider culture, including myself. Keeping that in mind, I moved tentatively to consider the dream psychologically. "Yes, it is true that we might well expect the dream to present the feeling and cognitive state of your mind in your waking life, but the dream tells us much more than that. What is the meaning of the structure in which you find yourself with no known exit? Why this diverse grouping of people? Why the candles as the only source of light? Why do you not see any windows or doors? And what is the meaning of this anticipatory atmosphere? Each of these elements is important."
"But why," Ava insisted. "I am talking to you about the real world, not some unreal, imaginary world in my dream. Are you saying this is all in my mind," she protested.
"But think about this," I responded. "In your dream you find yourself in a structure of some kind, do you not? It is, in other words, a complex, another word we use when referring to a building, a structure, or a "maze" of rooms, to use your words for the rooms."
Ava was still not sure where I was going and pushed me to go on. "Let me make sure I understand," she said. "Are you suggesting this is all in my mind? That there is nothing out there that leads me to experience things not being right out in the world?"
"No," I continued. "I am not saying your experience is only in your mind. I think it is both in your mind and in the world outside, inner and outer. Something is occurring out there that is alerting your unconscious to a possible threat of some kind -- a threat or danger that has brought you to this consulting room. We could call it a psychological complex, but I do not want us to get ahead of ourselves because there is still a lot we do not know, and we do not need to get tangled up in psychological terminology."
"But," she continued to insist, "To be clear, are you saying my concern -- whatever you call it -- is psychological?"
"I am saying it is indeed psychological," I replied. "But it is also social and spiritual at its deepest level. And it is very worthwhile that you and I explore this together."
Walking into my consulting room for her first appointment, the fashionably dressed woman of early middle age quickly told me why she had asked for the appointment. Following our brief exchange of pleasantries, she said, "I feel I am living through a very difficult time." I asked her to tell me what she meant by that, to describe how she was experiencing what she called a difficult time.
Then, after a slight pause when she seemed to be trying to collect her thoughts, she spoke slowly and hesitantly, "It is hard for me to tell you what the problem is. I feel satisfied with my marriage, we make a good living, I have friends who seem to like me, my children are well with their relationships and work. But something is not right."
We sat silently for awhile and then she went on. "I was afraid to come, afraid you might tell me I am depressed or anxious and might need medication. And I might, but I don't think so. It is as if we are all going along, pretending we are happy. I mean, the markets are doing fine, but we know there are problems at the border, warnings about our environment, a gulf between those who could be described as having enough and those who do not." She paused.
"Is this what you mean?", I asked. "That you feel depressed or anxious about those things you have just described, but also worry that you may be clinically depressed and anxious? Is this what you want to sort out? Is this what you mean when you say you feel like you are living through a difficult time?"
"I am not sure," she replied. "It seems to be somehow deeper than that." She went on,"I remember a poem we read in college, Yeats' "Second Coming," where he described the time with a very disturbing thought, 'The center will not hold.' I do not know for sure what he meant by that, but come to think about it, this reminds me also of another line I have brought with me from those years in my literature classes. Hamlet said that things were rotten in Denmark and that 'The time is out of joint'."
The woman paused again briefly, as if pondering what she had just said, and then she continued, "I don't mean to take us away from my situation, but when you ask me what I mean when I say I am living through a very difficult time, it seems that those two lines describe what I am feeling better than any of my attempt to explain myself. But what do you think? You are the analyst," she said as if trying to bring some levity to what appeared to have become a dark and possibly foreboding state of her mind.
However, the truth was, I did not know how to answer her question. Was she expecting me to suggest why her personal experience of living through a difficult time reminded her of lines from Yeats and Shakespear's Hamlet? Had she pondered them down through the years, or did they arise surprisingly just at this moment? And how appropriate were those lines in describing the woman's present situation? As she probably was aware, Yeats wrote his poem at a time when Word War I had just concluded; the woman had not experienced what at Yeats' time had been described as the "Great War." And Hamlet's experience of his time being "out of joint" was quite different from the woman's description of her marriage and domestic life as generally very stable and content.
So what was the connection of this apparently healthy woman's "difficult time" with a world in which the "center is not holding" and the "time is out of joint?"
Also, I had other questions. Had there been early trauma in the woman's life? What did I need to know about her medical history, her relationship to her parents and ancestry, her religion, her social life, her political orientation and participation? And how did she choose to work with me, a Jungian Analyst with early training as a pastoral counselor? Was that intentional, well thought-out, or a synchronistic happening?
In other words, what were her expectations of analysis in general and work with me in particular? Is she interested in the intersection of psychology and religion, and if so -- to return to my earlier question -- what might be her religious orientation? Does she need to talk with a priest, pastor, or rabbi rather than a psychoanalyst?
These questions filtered through my conversation with this new contact, who asked to be called by her first name, Ava. She quickly responded to the questions I presented as part of my intake and declared there were no traces to her knowledge of any medical and psychological issues that had bearing in her visit to my office. As for how she came to pick my name, she claimed it was almost a "fluke" that she came across my website and a blog I had written recently, a blog in which I had referred to the depth dimension as a quality that had led me into my work. Her only experience in counseling had come through five sessions she and her husband shared as part of their pre-marital counseling -- he, a Roman Catholic, and she, a Protestant, both considering themselves as non-practicing at this point although she appreciated the important role of religion in society having to do with weddings, funerals, baptisms, care for the ill and dying, as well as crisis intervention.
"You must have found something meaningful in religion at some point in your early life to have been credentialed as a pastoral counselor that no doubt required clinical training and experience," she said, looking at me quizzically as if she could not quite put together religion, psychology, psychoanalysis, and clinical training. Her curiosity was warranted. "Yes," I admitted, "it must appear as quite a stretch to put all those parts together in shaping a career, meeting professional and governmental standards." And so, I gave her the quick version of how all of that came to be and how it began with a very significant dream of an eagle that came to me in my twenties with the message, "There is more."
"But," I said, returning to Ava's presenting concerns, "I need to hear more about what makes this time so difficult for you?"
At this point in our conversation, I had begun to suspect the political, social divisiveness of our time as lying at the root of this very sensitive woman's anxiety. Many others come to my office with this concern. The social divide in our society not only fragments our society as a whole, but also the sub-groups within our society that -- in better days -- work together by forming a social contract in which a respectful empathic resonance vibrates through our schools, our clubs, our families, our entertainment venues, our churches, synagogues, and mosques, creating a unified identity that holds together our differences and tensions. When this does not happen, it is not only our society as a whole and the sub-groups of our society that are fragmented, it is also our individual psyches that become disoriented as well.
In a letter written by Carl Jung to A. Gerstner-Hirzel of Basel in September 1957, Jung refers to the place of art in stabilizing and focusing the psyches of persons who have "collided headlong with the fatal disorientation of our time." (See Letters, Vol. 2,
p. 387). And in another letter to Philip Magor written on May 23, 1950, Jung says this:
If you take the concept of prayer in its widest sense and if you include Buddhist
contemplation and Hindu meditation (as being equivalent to prayer), one can
say that it is the most universal form of religious or philosophical concentration
of the mind and thus not only one of the most original but also the most frequent
means to change the condition of mind. If this psychological method had been
inefficient, it would've been extinguished long ago, but nobody with a certain
amount of human experience could deny its efficacy. (Letters, Vol. 1, p. 558).
Prompted by Ava's concern for her disturbing experience of living through this troubled time, a time that could be understood as a "collective trauma," I thought back to Jung's reference to "the fatal disorientation of our time." What was Ava's difficulty but precisely this: a collision of her psyche with the fatal disorientation of our time, threatening each of us with a fragmentation so severe it poses the threat of psychic chaos.
(Ava has given me permission to reference her case, which will be continued in future blogs. I have chosen the name "Ava" to protect her identity.)
There are stars, and then there are "stars." Lately I have noticed that my mind seems to come back, not just to stars, but to the "stars" who fill our public spaces, cluttering our social, spiritual, and psychological life.
For example, there are the "stars" who crowd the media with clownish tactics which seem unfailingly to dominate our attention. Consider our political news and the toxic narcissism of our would-be leader. Consider also the fawning, obsequious flattery that follows in his wake, producing a medieval horror show that tortures our sensibilities and threatens our traditions of civility. Even the worst script writer for grade-B fiction would not write such tragic/comic scenes for fear the public wouldn't accept them. But this ever-performing "star," starved for accolades, succeeds in dominating our mutual life.
Of course, this act in the "big tent" of our political arena is but one parody of "stardom." Other stages vie for attention. Our short attention span appears to crave more and more of less and less: more danger, more aggression, more sensationalism; and less substance, less art that explores the deep nature of our existence, less depth in helping us to live lives that care for one another and our natural world. Such is our "star"-filled universe of media productions in which politics has become a horror show. And again, I am not acknowledging that some creative, worth-while productions exist, but rather that our attention span itself appears to be oriented toward the "star"-gazing fascination with distractions of greed and those who manipulate it.
And so I ask myself, why is it that we human beings are so fascinated with the "stars" and their movements in our movies, sports, preachers, politicians, and executives? But, then again, why not? Consider the fact that most human beings find the night sky fascinating. Even as small children, we delight in looking at the sky -- the changing moon, the shooting stars, the movement of constellations, the designs and patterns the stars make: "the little dipper," "the big dipper," "Aquarius," "Scorpius," "Aries," etc.
The Greek and Roman names of the constellations witness to the human tendency to project meaning upon a surface that compels our interest and attention. In this way, the dramatic characters of our mythological history play out their dramas above our heads and move through the night sky, bringing with them the seasons that rotate through our earth-bound life.
For the young mind, historically as well as biologically, this seeming cause-and-effect relationship enhanced us with a wonder that lingers still. This is so because it is archetypal. The patterns we see in the sky dwelt within us before we projected their "meaning" upon the heavens.
For example, as our Space.com website describes the mythology of Aquarius:
The Greeks linked this constellation Ganymede, the cupbearer to the gods.
According to lore, Ganymede was a good-looking young man who was the
object of Zeus' affection and was brought to Mount Olympus, where he
served as cup bearer to the gods and was granted eternal youth.
Aquarius has also various meanings and associations in other cultures.
Babylonian astronomers identified the constellation as representing the
god Ea, or "The Great One," which was often pictured with an overflowing
vessel. In ancient Egypt, the water bearer's jar was said to cause the spring
overflow of the Nile when it was dipped into the river. The Chinese
astronomers viewed the "stream" as soldiers.
In this centuries-old fascination with stars, we see a deep interconnection with human beings and the stars. They serve as points of orientation in our need to find meaning beyond the experience of our existence on earth. The sense of a greater controlling force that moves the stars in established patterns may have meaning for our orientation on earth as well.
And indeed that is the case. In previous centuries, we had only the stars to guide our risky journeys across the oceans, for example. And the stars also proved to be a valuable, trustworthy guide on land as well.
One such example was the experience of southern slaves who had only one guide to orient them in their escape to northern states and Canada. That guide was the North Star. Suspended above the earth, perched on the line that would form an axis from the earth's northern hemisphere into space, Polaris, which we call "the North Star,"remains a constant point over our heads around which the northern sky moves like movement of a clock's hands. While other stars move, rising and setting, the North Star remains in the same spot and thus serves as a directional point.
It was because of this natural, unmoving point in the night sky that run-away slaves could chart their route toward freedom. On December 3, 1847, Frederick Douglas founded a publication called The North Star. Douglas himself was an escaped slave, and his newspaper sounded the theme that not only supported slaves in their escape to freedom, but also helped bring an end to slavery itself. The North Star's slogan is worth recalling:
Right is of no sex --
Truth is of no color --
God is the Father of us all
and all we are Brethren.
With this publication, Douglas creatively merged a natural object -- the star -- along with a human fascination with the inexplicable wonder of the night sky, and an escape of humanity from the degradation of slavery. In doing this, Frederick Douglas helped to make each of us a little more conscious, reminding each of us that we need a North Star to escape the smothering slavery of the spirit that possesses us today and shackles us to the present age's slave masters of greed and "stardom."
It is these words of Carl Jung that call us to an orientation of our inner psychological, spiritual North Star.
The more a man's life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his
individual immorality. (Collected Works, Vol. 6, para. 762)
The "collective norm" refers to the danger of locating our personal identity and values within a group's mass-mindedness. It is the path of disorientation in which we become vulnerable to the collective psychic epidemics of war, prejudice, and the loss of soul.