Tuesday, January 27, 2009

I Think, Therefore I am…Confused!

After a week’s worth of reading Freud, Jung and Joyce for a class at Antioch McGregor in May of 2008, I wrote the following essay which has since gained more attention and interest. I have edited the original slightly to make it more accessible to other readers, but the thoughts are the same.

The study of how the mind works, why we do what we do, has always fascinated me. I constantly assess the actions and apparent thought processes of those around me, trying to ferret out the underlying motivations. More often than not, my reaction is, “I don’t get it! Why on earth did they think/behave/react that way?” but I try.

Jung’s notion of a collective unconscious and Freud’s “harboured residues of the existences of countless egos” (The Ego and the Id 35) makes sense to me. If, as I have come to believe, there is a fundamental interconnectedness of all things, it follows that our inherited mental faculties would share some bit of universal memory. This concept has been used to explain child prodigies, among other anomalies, and it seems reasonable. It would also explain, at least in part, the spontaneous, nearly-concurrent appearance of certain ways of life in different parts of the world from speech to societal organization to religion. Unfortunately, such shared memories don’t seem to bring us together as a species beyond a certain limited framework.

I recall a quote which I read or heard somewhere by someone I can’t remember in the vague distant past that patriotism is the arrogance of assuming one’s native country is somehow superior by virtue of oneself having been born there. That same notion is echoed in religious choice, where one’s family determines the church which often comes to preoccupy belief and possibly derail thought. In The God Delusion, author Richard Dawkins rails against – among many other things! – labeling children by their parent’s belief systems, as in “Christian child” or “Jewish boy.” I would raise the same objection, albeit a bit more mildly, to the concept of nationalism, and both positions serve to separate us from each other and often ourselves.

What Jung calls the “Western man” uses these illusionary divisions and a self-imposed “unaware(ness) of the deep root of all being” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 543) to maintain an “us versus them” mentality. From the apocryphal expulsion of the Jewish nation from Egypt because of religious (and national?) differences, to the current push to “secure” our borders and keep the foreigners out of “our” country, external differences have served to segregate communities, encourage oppression and cause countless wars. Scriptures from the three monotheistic religions foster this division by giving themselves a divine imprint. Rather than exploring and embracing the very real possibility of a collective unconscious, humanity seems to find it more exhilarating to focus on superficial differences, to the detriment of us all.

Joyce puts this divisiveness into sharp relief in the opening chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. When I read his Dante Riordan shouting “God and morality and religion come first” to Mr. Casey’s “No God for Ireland!” (29) over the dinner table, I cringe. Anytime religion or nationalism takes precedent over humanitarianism, society is at risk; that was as true in Joyce’s day as in our own. If only humanity had grown to the point of being able to “fly by those nets” (174).

Jung tries to explain such rigid belief systems by noting they are “an excellent defense against an onslaught of immediate experience with its terrible ambiguity” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 631). I suppose that makes sense in a here-and-now-sort of way, but in the larger scheme of things, such narrow-mindedness can only serve to limit potential for growth. Ambiguity is a part of life. No matter how long man searches for explanations and meaning – a worthwhile quest, when approached with an honest curiosity – there likely are things we will never understand with our finite minds. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. Like Jung, “I do not enjoy philosophical arguments that amuse by their own complications” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 626); give me a logical, practical debate anytime. Dogmatic beliefs of any nature stifle such debate and discourage the free exchange of ideas necessary to find that meaning we all seem to share the need to seek (back to the collective unconscious!).

I recently received an email from an acquaintance (who should know better) forwarding an article from Free Republic. The author rants against the “Global-Warming cultists” for seeking to destroy religion and the family, ridiculing Malthus’ theories on the effects of over-population, and generally insulting anyone not of his particular mindset. “For the left, the quintessential spiritual experience would be an abortion performed at a same-sex marriage ceremony, while transgendered ushers throw condoms instead of confetti, and bridesmaids confiscate handguns from passersby” (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/2017156/posts). Now that’s a productive debate method! This acquaintance – and I really would like to say “friend” but can’t bring myself to do so; friends don’t behave in such a manner! – and I have had words prior to this on our widely-different views of the world and I have asked politely not to be included in her more inflammatory threads. Apparently, she still feels the need to convert me or simply likes to rile things, hence being not deserving of “friend.” My response to this email: “What a snide, narrow-minded commentary on some pundit’s single-minded focus! Such pin-hole vision, from either side of the issue, will never solve such a real, multi-faceted problem. But it’s always easier to point fingers and debate ideology than find solutions that may require personal sacrifice for the greater good and a change in mores.” And on it goes, back to my original question, why on earth do people think that way?

Jung returns to the defense mechanism: it’s easier to find outside, particularly divine, causes for the problems we face. “People no longer stop to ask themselves how far it (disaster) is their own doing” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 546) because then they would have to address the issue of how to resolve the situation, or to prevent it from reoccurring. Humanity has searched for cause-and-effect for time immemorial. From the first quake of the earth, the thunderstorm with lightening that burned down the forest, the flood which wiped out a village, people have needed to find an explanation for the disasters – and fortunes – that occur every day. And it is always easier to place that cause outside oneself rather than admit that possibly personal actions had unintended consequences.

Tacking that responsibility onto another human being takes the onus off ourselves. They are the wrong ones who need to change; I and my tribe have the moral high ground. And make sure someone is punished: kill the surplus tailor for the blacksmith’s offense, if necessary, but blame must be placed and the crime absolved. Based on those far too frequent reactions, I see where Freud reached the conclusion that “Normal man is not only far more immoral than he believes but also far more moral than he knows” (The Ego and the Id 53), although I’m hesitant on the “more moral” part. I want to believe it, but the evening news makes it difficult.

I end this disjointed ramble with a comforting thought from Jung: “The normal man is a fiction” (Basic Writings of C.C. Jung 674). I can stop trying to be normal!

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