The liberating wisdom of Carl Jung

Sunday, March 30, 2008

This article is inspired mainly by Carl Jung whose wisdom I have been recalling lately. The most recent occasion was when I watched Barack Obama talk about the racism issue in America that’s been dogging him ever since his pastor highlighted it in an inflammatory sermon in their church. I was absolutely stunned that a politician would refuse to take the safe and simple route of merely denouncing what his pastor had said and get himself off the hook. Instead, Obama chose to present the complexity of racism in his society with all its shades and ambiguities.

As I watched him speak, I knew that I was listening to an extraordinary leader who, while condemning what his pastor had said, also admitted that he had learned a lot of goodness from the man. He said he could no more denounce his pastor than denounce his own white grandmother who made remarks about blacks that made him cringe.

Have we entered a new era in politics, a new age in the conduct of public life where a public figure does not have to pander to the public’s biases and small-mindedness? I asked myself that question as Obama spoke. All too often, leaders and famous people tend to sell themselves to their public as 100-percent good and perfect, without any flaws. As much as possible, they present themselves as completely deodorized and sanitized, even if they end up appearing one-dimensional and unreal.

Carl Jung said that every man casts a shadow, and the greater the man, the bigger the shadow. And like a statue at midday to sunset, the shadows cast from midlife to the end can only get longer and greater. The more we know of our heroes, the more we see their feet of clay. As a psychologist, Jung had seen enough to be distrustful of anyone or anything that presented him/her/itself not just as someone or something pristine and perfect but also of pure origin. In a loaded statement, he once said, “Show me a man who is sane and I will cure him for you.”

This makes me think that perhaps a great mistake our political and moral leaders continuously make is dictating how we should think about a lot of things, such as birth control, euthanasia, divorce, etc. They make pronouncements suggesting that they have thought out the issues for us and that we should trust that this is what is good and what we should believe. Often enough, theirs is a narrow viewpoint which, in many instances, is not even well thought out. But going against religious opinion is not easy since it always claims to have the moral high ground.

I have both admiration and pity for Councilor Joseph Juico of Quezon City who sponsored a bill on family planning that went against the Church’s stand. Although I know he was coming from a place of compassion for the poor and had good intentions, he got pilloried for it.

Remember some concepts, such as the existence of limbo, the rule about overnight fasting before communion, and a few other beliefs and practices that gave us a lot of anxieties before? It was much ado about nothing, as it turns out, since they have mostly been revised or put to pasture by the very institution that imposed them on us.

Anyone in a position of power and influence whose aim is to control and influence our thinking instead of stimulating discussion will end up “caricaturing” the issues. Things tend to get divided into simplistic arguments, disregarding life’s complexity. That’s because their premise is that people cannot grasp subtleties or complicated situations.

M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, believes that the most committed sin of humanity is laziness. This seems to be true when you realize that it takes much more effort to go the extra distance and understand the many nuances of issues than to just surrender to a simple explanation of something already sorted out by someone else. It takes a lot of personal work to pay attention and think, to take full responsibility for one’s beliefs and actions. It is so much easier to trust our leaders to do the thinking for us.

Many times we find we are trapped in “either/or” thinking, limiting our courses of action. Either/or thinking is borne out of a blocked mindset. Examples of this are, “One is right and therefore the other must be wrong.” Or “One must gain and another must suffer.”  This cramped way of thinking about our choices results in dualistic, simplistic analyses that render us unable to see the many other aspects inherent in any situation.

How about replacing “either/or” with “both/and”? How about accepting that people and situations can be both good and bad (as opposed to good or bad), easy and hard, simple and complex. People are not simply either villains or heroes, but both. They can also be saints and cads, intelligent and stupid. Doesn’t this sound like a more realistic proposition?

Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, both writers of Gnostic spirituality, posited the funny but wise notion that while it is true that there is virtue in looking at our bodies as sacred temples, on occasion, it is okay to look at them as fun nightclubs as well! Plotinus talks about looking in “two directions at once.” Zen points out the importance of the Middle Way between opposites. And I dare say that neither Plotinus nor the Zen practitioners are lost, wishy-washy, or non-committal about life. In fact, they see life in its completeness.

I have a friend who, when he found out that his father — who was a respectable, straight, very Catholic, upright citizen, politically correct in every way and, from all indications, a good man — was dying, had such a deep and aching longing to connect with him. Interestingly, he wanted to ask his distant father a few things that he had never dared ask before, like whether he ever had a girlfriend apart from his wife, or an extramarital affair, or if he ever cheated on his taxes. In fact, he was hoping that he could elicit from his father a confession of a more imperfect life other than what his family could see so that he, being a more flawed son, could still aspire for the greatness he saw in his dad.

I have thought about all the great people I have met and known and I know that none of them is/was perfect. They all have their faults and dysfunctions. If all I knew about them was the great deeds they did or the perfection attributed to them by everyone else, I would not see them as real people.

I once knew a great man who had a severe drinking addiction. Interestingly, what made him great to me, aside from his many achievements, was that he totally accepted himself as he was: a flawed man who was capable of great things. In a way, we all are exactly the same. The main difference is that he still chose to fly and follow his bliss despite his limitations.

But the difference between him and many of us is that he knew his own shadows intimately, and it was not surprising that, because of it, he could easily understand and even forgive other people’s faults.

“We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses,” Carl Jung wrote. One might say that the act of embracing his faults made my friend comfortable in his own skin and once that happened, he could quickly identify with the rest of humanity.

While we accept things as they are, it is also necessary to take sides. In this way, life is indeed paradoxical and, in fact, it’s being so cannot be avoided. Life, after all, is about both acceptance and choices. But to be able to do so in a fruitful and enlightened way, it helps that we are capable of appreciating and coming to terms with both its complexities and the consequences of personal commitment to change not just the situation, but ourselves as well. And that involves embracing both one’s light and shadow.

I’d like to leave you with something provocative from Jung. He once boldly stated, “I’d rather be whole than good.” That may upset some of the purists and moralists but I find it to be a statement that expresses not only great honesty but genuine liberation.