[On November 16, 2008, during the course of presentations on his book, Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma, Jungian Analyst Jerome S. Bernstein was invited to give a sermon at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Church in Port Townsend, WA. That sermon follows below.]
Where Have We Come to and Where Might We Be Trying to Go: Larger Questions and Deeper Values in Current Politics
by Jerome Bernstein, M.A.P.C., N.C.Psy.A.
While preparing for this sermon I looked at the Quimper Unitarian Universalist statement of purpose. It says, in part: “The core of a community such as ours is that this is a place where, first of all, one is invited and expected to address the largest questions and the deepest values of life. It’s a place where philosophical curiosity and religious value meet.”
So I began to reflect on the larger questions and the deeper values of life that seem to push forward in the context of the recent election. No need to comment that we live in extraordinary times. I think that it is such a profound moment in this nation’s history for the same reasons that most others do. But for me, its highest importance is in what it may be signaling in terms of the growth of our collective consciousness. After all, it is not just in the selection of the better or the worst candidate that we place our faith and our hope. As we know, they all pass on. The ultimate ethical question for us is, “What is the legacy of consciousness we develop and will have left for those who follow?” Consciousness is the primary and essential tool that we have for plumbing the largest questions and the deepest values of life. It is our struggle for consciousness, individually and collectively as a nation, that enables a meeting between “philosophical curiosity and religious value,” the Unitarian Universalist mandate.
As a Jungian analyst, I find that some Jungian concepts are helpful in understanding politics and the world. Jung’s concept of the “shadow” is one in particular. For our purposes here, I would define the shadow dynamic as the projection of those characteristics that we carry and that are most inconsistent with our self-image and our sense of self. This would be true on a collective level as well as on a personal level, so it would apply to us as a nation as well as to us as individuals. Shadow dynamics are for the most part unconscious and therefore get projected out onto others –– countries as well as individuals. We can see this when, for instance, a politician who crusades on the issue of corruption, unethical behavior, or graft gets caught in his own ethical indiscretions or when our President decries the Russian invasion of the country of Georgia for strategic reasons despite having done the same in Iraq.
Recently, prior to our election, I had an e-mail correspondence from a man of my son's generation. He wrote: "Btw, the economy is what should cinch this election, but don’t completely count out bigotry and racism. Also, I would like you to further explain the integrating shadow thing and Muslim-sounding/black president. I still don’t get the full deal."
That prompted the following response from me.
Regarding integrating the shadow, I think it goes like this:
1. Our country's liberty and fortune were originally built on the backs of slaves. As a result, we have a national guilt complex in our shadow as well as the usual bigotry. For generations for western white folk, the darker the skin of the other, the greater the bigotry -- and at bottom, the greater the national guilt complex.
2. The care that the Founding Fathers took to build a firewall between government and religion has been significantly and successfully eroded over the 232 years since independence. Although there were many references to God by the Founding Fathers, there were virtually none to a religion or to Christianity.
3. Over time much of religion in this country has become either insipid or become more of a dogma than a spiritual practice, particularly in the case of right-wing Christians, right-wing Muslims, and right-wing Jews. That dogma has been consistently mixed in with politics. That has confounded peoples' understanding of both religion and politics, particularly the latter.
4. Progressively since Nixon, right-wing Christians have been enormously successful in dubbing this a Christian country. Its hey days came under Reagan and Bush 1 and then started to decline until its revival with Bush 2 (W.).
5. When 9/11 occurred, the neocons (many of whom are Jewish, ironically) saw an opportunity, as did the Christian right. (It is important here to remember that W. is a born-again Christian, by his own word.) In the first days after 9/11, Bush identified our battle, our war, as a "Crusade." This greatly inflamed the Muslims, including our so-called allies, and it very much activated and inflamed right-wing Christians as well. We were now again in a Crusade against the infidels –– with some factions calling for nuking the Muslims (all of them). Informed moderates were so alarmed that Bush and the neocons had stolen an opportunity, in the wake of 9/11 for self-analysis and re-analysis of our foreign policy and claims to empire, that Bush was forced to stop using the term "Crusade" after the first week. But the shadow cat was out of the bag. Bush had declared a war against terror, a new Crusade, an Axis of Evil, with we identified clearly as the good guys and "they" identified clearly as the bad. Eventually, the target "they" came to include many of us and we became the focus of domestic spying; along with that came the erosion of constitutional guarantees.
6. Psychologically and archetypally speaking, from my point of view, the single most dangerous thing that can happen in politics is "splitting." This is a clinical term in psychoanalysis that refers to an individual's inability to hold the tension between opposite feelings, opposite emotions, opposite thoughts, and behavior. From this standpoint there is a right choice and a wrong choice and no possibility of both dynamics co-existing through creative struggle. Thus everything devolves into black or white, good or evil, the axis of evil (they are evil, we are good), and as W. said, “You're either with us or against us.”
7. Psychodynamically, Jung refers to the "transcendent function," which occurs when two sides can hold the tension between opposites and splits in their ideology and dogma without acting out. This is what Barak Obama is advocating as a change in the way we conduct foreign policy. When the tension between opposites can be held, the transcendent function can come into play. In other words, a third possibility emerges that is different from the two opposites. The most prevalent example of this in modern politics was when the Soviet Union collapsed from within, notwithstanding U.S. claims of victory in the Cold War. What occurred with the Soviet Union was totally unexpected by everyone –– it was an emergent third dynamic, a completely unanticipated outcome, and it represents a fine example of the transcendent function coming into play.
8. Now to Barak Hussein Obama (whose name sounds like Osama bin Laden to many). He is Black, thereby symbolizing one major chunk of our collective shadow as it concerns slavery and its legacy, racism; he is also White, psychologically symbolizing an absolute taboo in this country well into the 1960s –– namely, miscegenation; he symbolically carries the image and name of the enemy –– not only of this country, but all of western civilization. Therefore, to many he is a symbol of the anti-Christ –– namely, a Muslim and of the Crusades. At the same time, he is a recognized and apparently sincerely practicing Christian in the best sense of the word. He also espouses a politics of consciously pursuing the transcendent function; that is, he holds that he would sit down with the enemy (the Axis of Evil) without prior conditions and would make military intervention subordinate to diplomacy. In this regard, I’d like to quote him: “To renew American leadership in the world, I will strengthen our common security by investing in our common humanity. Our global engagement cannot be defined by what we are against; it must be guided by a clear sense of what we stand for . . . .”
Psychologically and politically he is committed to holding the tension of the opposites and not succumbing to the pressure to split politically. His election to the Presidency, in my view, psychologically and archetypally as well as politically, represents one of the most profound psychic shifts in the history of this country, nothing short of a "phase change" in the terms of physics and complexity theory.
9. For real shadow integration on the deepest level, however, there would need to be a consciousness of these symbolic shifts and transformations on the part of a significant chunk of the collective. Right now the process is semi-conscious for some and not at all for many, although many people feel this transformation even if they have no formulated concept of what is taking place archetypally. It is a first step toward real consciousness in that regard.
All of what I have said above would hold true whether or not he turns out to be a good President. The psychological and archetypal step will have been taken; a threshold will have been crossed. He has already taken us across that threshold.
If he succeeds as President, it will further that process of consciousness raising and shadow integration on a deeper level. If not, while it would be discouraging, a threshold crossed is a threshold crossed and archetypally there is no going back to the status quo ante. Thus his election holds out the possibility of healing our national guilt complex and reducing our proclivity for projecting the devil “out there” onto everybody else. We could better deal with it in our own collective psyche by addressing our own aspirations to empire while seeing ourselves only in terms of “spreading freedom.”
10. Last, prevailing archetypal forces do wane. Entropy is real. Thus the demise (hopefully) of the old American cowboy hero image who saves the day no matter what, always defeating bad guys in black hats, symbolized by John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, W., and John McCain. Enter in a new national heroic image –– Barak Hussein Obama –– who carries all of the primary symbols of the American shadow and brings them into the light of day unlike anyone who has ever appeared on the stage of American politics. Incidentally, he doesn’t wear any hat most of the time. Already we are hearing talk of how the old regime is gone (e.g., Wall Street as we have known it) and he isn't even President yet. To me this symbolizes the shift in archetypal forces that are at play within the collective unconscious. Obama is an instrument of those archetypal forces as well as his own person and our next President.
Most of us are aware of the staggering burden that this man has taken on. Personally, I believe that he has a better sense than anyone of what he has taken on, and furthermore I think he has done so consciously. During the campaign and since the election, Barak Obama has said that he can’t do it without us. Certainly that is a tried-and-true campaign slogan, and he has generated more financial support for a presidential campaign than anyone would have imagined. He also said, “Let's resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.”
The word “immaturity” is most striking to me. I don’t think we have ever heard a President challenge us to a “mature” stance, not just a better one. There is no mistaking it, his challenge to us here for a more mature stance in our politics is one that demands more consciousness on our part. Here is a President challenging us to become more conscious. Here is a President challenging us to learn to engage in politics without splitting.
And what if he really means that he can’t do it without us? What if he meant something that goes beyond campaign slogans and fund raising? What then? Where does that leave us?
If, as I suggested earlier, consciousness raising is the primary and essential tool that we have for plumbing the largest questions and the deepest values of life, what is our role as individuals in that work?
It is in learning to hold the tension of opposites: for example, to try to grasp the desperation in the anguish of someone who identifies themselves as “pro-life” and to come to an appreciation that abortion is an emotional and moral murder to that person, whatever the law of the land and the courts say about a woman’s right to choose. It would mean to be able to hold an understanding of a desperation for the preservation of the life of the unborn that would even drive a person to bomb an abortion clinic and to take the life of other living individuals –– not to agree with it, but to understand it, to have compassion for and even to be able to empathize with it. It would mean bearing the burden of that desperation that we feel in the other with the realization that there is no resolution to it. Our burden would be to bear their burden with them while disagreeing.
This would be the true meaning of “crossing the aisle” politically. Without this level of consciousness, we are simply engaging in trade-offs –– soulless bargaining and strategizing to win. We saw some of this occur with the bipartisan effort in the House of Representatives, which defeated the first bail- out plan for the economy. There was a gut-level feeling that there was something morally wrong with that plan.
It would also mean questioning what it is in us that can go from abhorrence at the disgusting campaign of vilification and character assassination that has just been waged to dismissing its relevance the very next day as “simply politics” when the losing candidate gives a gracious concession speech. Does that render us complicit in acceptance by default of a politics of pettiness and dishonesty because we are too ready to forgive without doing the work of truth and reconciliation within and between both political parties? Should we not be demanding some kind of code of ethical campaigning between the major political parties? And, if we don’t, who will? Or will we remain stuck in the pettiness and immaturity that our new President challenges us to move beyond?
It seems to me that Barak Obama is not only receiving our projections onto him as a transformative new leader; he is also mirroring back to us a reflection of our own projections and ideals. He does so with the implicit question of, “And what about you? Can you rise to this task you have given me?”
That is the question at hand.