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Conflicts of Duty by Phyllis LaPlante, MSW, LCSW

Sunday, April 15, 2018 9:00 AM | Jung Society of Washington

We are living in times of great disruption: political passions are aflame, internal upheavals have brought nations to the brink of chaos, and the very foundations of our worldview are shattered. One cannot avoid coming to grips with contemporary history, even if one’s very soul shrinks from the political uproar, the lying propaganda, and the jarring speeches of demagogues. One has duties as a citizen and an obligation to humanity. (C.G. Jung CW10, pp. 177-178.)

Written 72 years ago, Jung’s words are surprisingly current and relevant, as if he were writing a column for a newspaper’s op-ed page. For me, the question of what constitutes a citizen’s duty to humanity has been reverberating for more than a year. Perhaps you too have been stirred to act, to protest, to resist, to join, mobilize, and march, to write your elected representatives, perhaps even to run for office.

We are usually spurred into action by the workings of our conscious mind. However, Jung often reminds us that the conscious mind is a bad judge of its own situation.

He insists that we learn more about our unconscious mind, saying:

When, as the result of a long technical and moral procedure a person obtains knowledge of the structure of her psyche, based on experience, and accepts the responsibility entailed by this knowledge, there follows an integration or completeness of the individual, who in this way approaches wholeness but not perfection. Instead of striving after the ideal of perfection, we content ourselves with the more accessible goal of approximate completeness. Progress does not lead to an exalted state of spiritualization but to a wise self-limitation and modesty. (CW14:616.)

Thus, from Jung we have a pair of opposites concerning duty: The first is an external duty, an action to encounter contemporary history. The second is an internal duty, to pursue knowledge of one’s psyche.

As with any pair of opposites, it is crucial to choose and value both sides. We do not have the luxury of choosing between an external and an internal duty, because we will be incapable of correct external action if we don’t become acquainted with our internal situation. We will locate an enemy “out there” if we fail to befriend our internal adversary.

One way to pursue the goal of self-knowledge is by cultivating an authentic relationship with our shadow. Only by owning our unwanted psychic contents can we become empowered to discern and deal with any external evil. It is naive to assume that our conscious attitude toward any person, group, or element of society is totally accurate until we acknowledge our unacknowledged unconscious attitude. As Jung points out:

An unconscious process always sets in when the attitude and orientation of the conscious mind have proved inadequate. Dreams and psychological symptoms must be examined, for they contradict the attitude of consciousness. There will be a stirring up of those archetypes that were most suppressed by the conscious attitude. Then the ego is confronted with its adversary and the melting and re-casting process begins. (CW14:505.)

Erich Neumann’s Depth Psychology and a New Ethic has been a good place for me to start, re-start, and start again the difficult process of recognizing and owning my shadow. Neumann urges us to stop suppressing, repressing, and projecting our unwanted and unacknowledged unconscious psychic elements.

In his Foreword to Neumann’s book, Jung writes:

We might define the “New Ethic” as a development and differentiation within the old ethic, confined at present to those uncommon individuals who, driven by unavoidable conflicts of duty, endeavor to bring the conscious and the unconscious into responsible relationship.

Here’s to all “uncommon individuals” who wisely and modestly pursue both external and internal solutions to our shared problems, whatever they may be. May we find value in the melting and recasting process.

Phyllis LaPlante is a certified Jungian Analyst and Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She received her Diploma from the C.G. Jung Institute of New York in 1998. She teaches courses in Jungian theory and practice. Semi-retired, she offers short-term consultation.


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