A friend of Jung’s once told him a story. Jung liked it so well that he asked a close associate to tell it whenever she lectured. In recent weeks, feeling the anguish of the tremendous split in the collective and the distress that many of us feel about it, I have found myself telling this story often. Here is a simple version.
A community was experiencing a terrible drought. The people said all of the usual prayers and conducted all of the usual rituals to bring the rain, but nothing worked. Finally, they decided to fetch the Rain Maker from another province. A few days later, an old man appeared. He asked only for a quiet little house away from the center of the town. He stayed shut in this house for three days, after which it snowed a great deal. Later, someone went to ask him how he made the rains come. “I had to get right with myself,” he said. “Then the rains came.”
The work that we as individuals do to get right with ourselves effects the broader culture. Our part may be tiny, but each person who strives to become more conscious of her own shadow does a little part in transforming the world soul.
Jung cautioned strongly against one-sidedness as a supreme psychic danger. The psyche is a self-regulating system, on a collective as well as personal level. When all is well, we sway back and forth between the opposites like a smoothly functioning pendulum. For example, we have moments when we love and delight in our partner, and other moments where we are exasperated or enraged. Both of these extremes exist, and hopefully we can remember one strong feeling even when we are in the grips of the other. In collective life, we swing back and forth between more corporate regulation and less, for example. Ideally, the poles are not so disparate from one another that they cannot stay connected. It is when the opposites become too far apart that we are in a dangerous situation of imbalance. In this case, a person or a culture has lost contact with the center, and in the language of the story, a terrible drought ensues.
Jungian analyst James Hillman pointed out throughout his writings that the opposites constellate each other, creating pairs of tandems that exist in opposition. If we do not hold these rigidly, one thing can flow easily into its opposite – a process known as enantiodromia. For example, a couple is deciding whether to have a third child. The husband recalls with fondness the joys of having an infant, and hopes the wife will agree to get pregnant. When the husband is so certain about what he wants, the wife finds herself holding the opposite stance. She focuses on the grueling nights with no sleep, and the happiness she feels that life is finally settling down. When she states her doubts about another child, the husband becomes even more attached to the idea. Thus, they each hold opposite poles. One of the problems with being in this state is that our flexibility is decreased. We are likely to each become very certain that there is only one answer to our question. We lose the ability to imagine other solutions that do not fit into either of the opposing paradigms.
James Hillman described this process in an interview with Pythia Peay in 2011.
Pythia: Are you saying that the liberals’ fixed view of the right might actually be helping to create the “enemy” that they’re locked in battle with? But isn’t the right just as guilty in this as the left?
Hillman: I’m not saying that there aren’t some fanatical activists on the right. But I’m on the left, so I’m trying to bring more psychology to their situation. And the ideological left runs a danger of continually nailing the coffin on the enemy. By fixing the opponent, it puts them in a box and omits the possibility of the kind of transformation exemplified by John Dean, Nixon’s lawyer, who then testified against him during the Watergate hearings. But if a political party is seen only this way or that way, then we prevent what else might possibly be going on in their psyches, and we’re not bringing any insight to the process.
To continue with our example from above, if the husband admits that he too has doubts and can see her side, she is then likely to feel some corresponding loosening around her position. Knowing that he is in doubt, she allows herself to imagine life with another little one. She can find that desire in herself also, while holding onto her doubts as well. This kind of flexibility in a system is a hallmark of psychological health.
It is probably not a stretch to see how this polarization could play out the collective realm of national politics. The Republicans stridently called for the repeal of the ACA for many months. They mostly had nothing good to say about it. This left Democrats vigorously defending the program, even to the point of sometimes ignoring and understating obvious issues with it. Now that there is little Democratic resistance to stand in their way, Republican rhetoric has softened about the ACA and some lawmakers have acknowledged that the law has not been all bad. Monty Python captured this same dynamic brilliantly in the “what have the Romans ever done for us?” scene from “Life of Brian.”
To avoid collapsing into a polarized position, we must continually work at getting right with ourselves. The morning after Donald Trump was elected, I had coffee with a friend who is Jewish, in a same-sex marriage, with African American children. I was feeling quite anxious about the country’s political climate. I assumed she was feeling even worse. Of course, she was concerned, but she is a wise woman who has done a great deal of her own work. She calmly listed some potential positive things that she imagined might come out of the election. Rather than allowing herself to become reactive and panicked, she cultivated flexibility. This is not the same thing as ignoring, denying or minimizing the peril that she saw. When we cultivate openness and flexibility, we attempt to hold multiple feelings and possibilities in consciousness.
If we cannot find a way to do this, we may flee to one pole, where we will likely be defensive, frightened, and angry. We may see danger everywhere we look, and project our own less desirable qualities onto our enemies, and even onto our allies. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of a highly polarized psychological state is an inability to hold any difference. In this environment, alliances quickly fray as erstwhile friends part company over the smallest of ideological disparities. Like the couple in the example above, the more we cling to our one-sided position, the more entrenched our opponents become in theirs. As a colleague of mine put it, the fundamentalisms on one side constellate fundamentalisms on the other.
When we find ourselves in a polarized state, a few important things happen psychologically. Because we start to see things in black and white, a conscious relationship to our shadow is impossible. Those people over there are all bad, and we over here are all good. This creates a situation in which extreme projection takes place, and we lose sight of our own complexity. Again, this can happen interpersonally as well as collectively. One of the dangers in over-identifying with one pole is that we get locked into a victim mentality. We may imagine ourselves constantly embattled. We may be filled with fear and anger. While this may be accurate to a point, and galvanizing in helping us resist or fight, getting locked into a victim role may mean that we lose an internal locus of control. We see the bad things happening to us as coming to us from without, and we lose a sense of agency when meeting challenges. Again, our ability to respond flexibly is diminished.
What are we to do? How can we avoid scattering to our separate corners? To walk back from a place of extreme polarization, we will need to do as the Rain Maker did. As we sit quietly, we can attune to ourselves, greeting all parts of ourselves with curiosity and acceptance so that we no longer need to project disowned contents onto others. We can relativize the position of the ego, which always wants to be in control, especially when we are scared. This will set us right with ourselves, restore our connection with the renewing waters of soul, and prepare us to take on whatever droughts we may encounter in the world.