From The Tuesday Journal - The Task of the Depth Psychologist

Monday, January 10, 2011

I want to write today about what it means to me to be a depth psychologist in today’s world. I read about and feel in my bones the polarization in our country: democrats v.republicans, liberals v. conservatives, religious fundamentalists v. “New Agers”, and the list goes on. What it essentially comes down to is “me v. Other.”Whoever we are and whereever we stand is the “me.” Whomever the other person is that stands in a different place in the world in such a way that we cannot see what he or she sees is “Other.” I struggle with this mightily and daily. I read the news and posts on Facebook, follow the links, glance at the comments from the larger, general public posted at the end of articles and editorials. And I shake my head in exasperation. I say, “I don’t understand the ignorance, the narrowmindedness, the illiteracy, the self-righteousness, the blindness, thedeafness, or – (you can fill in the blank here with other judgmental descriptors).” As soon as I say these words, cast the stone, I am complicit andjust as guilty as those I shake my head and finger at. I have, in that moment, contributed to and perpetuated the polarization and demonization which I abhor.

I once thought about writing a book called Judging Judgementalism. This is the stance I have the most difficulty with –judgement of others. Nothing can heat me up faster than someone who casts judgement on another because of race, gender, sexual preference, age, weight,socioeconomic status, religious beliefs or absence of, etc. Judgement of the Other. The paradox is, of course, that when I judge those who judge others, I have then joined their camp. I cry out for tolerance, and then I am intolerant of those who are intolerant. I am aware of the difficulty of this situation because I want a world in which all are treated equitably, so those who seem to want a world in which only some are treated equitably are, in mybook, the worse culprits. But if I want a world in which all are treated equitably, in which all people have a voice, then does that not also include those who say differently? It’s a conundrum, a Zen koan.

I am aware that those who want to shut down dialogue, who become dangerous in their attempts to exclude or silence certain voices cannot, in a civil society, be allowed to follow through on their threats, and, if they do, then they must be held accountable. But does this mean that I have to automatically slip into the position of judge? As a depth psychologist, the answer, for me, is no. I found my way to depth psychology (or depth psychology searched for me and I allowed myself to be found) because I sensed that there was an answer to this puzzle in the theories and traditions of depth psychology that could possibly save us.Well, save me. And I found it in Jung’s premises of the tension of opposites and the transcendent function of the psyche.

The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living, third thing – not a logical stillbirth . . . but a movement out of the suspension between opposites, a living birth that leadsto a new level of being, a new situation. The transcendent function manifests itself as a quality of conjoined opposites. So long as these are kept apart –naturally for the purpose of avoiding conflict – they do not function and remain inert. (Jung, CW, vol. 8, p. 90)

The answer I was looking for is here. As I read the information and the inevitable finger pointing regarding Jason Loughner’s assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the subsequent killing and wounding of others, I keep asking myself, What is my task in this moment as a depth psychologist? I am tempted in my anger, sadness, and frustration to join in the chorus, to find blame, and to judge the Other. There is a quiet witness within me, however, that says, “Nothing has changed here. It’s the same conversation, the same words swirling around us. Why sing that song when you know, in your heart of hearts, that it won’t change a thing? The Other will not hear you and most definitely will not listen to you.” As a depth psychologist, what is my task in this moment?

I believe that my task is to plop myself right smack down in the middle of this fray, hold the thread on the right and the left, keep them connected, keep them in relationship, and hold, hold, hold that tension. My task is to keep open my third eye to see what might be hidden, veiled, concealed. Nothing is ever as simple as it is presented in our media. For example, the current conversation about inflammatory, violent political messages: our government is obligated to investigate the consequencesof this trend; the citizenry is obligated to speak up when injustice is witnessed. The depth psychologist asks questions. What is trying to be conveyed in the violent words? Why now? Why here? What fertile ground do these vitriolic messages fall on? Who fertilizes this ground? What might be trying to take hold and grow? Or what is trying to be born that causes so much fear that it must be smothered, eliminated?

When I put a face to the mouth that speaks these words, – Sarah Palin for example – my job is to remember that she is a person, a human being, once a babe in arms, coming into this world as all infants do perfect in her personhood, that she has lived a life filled with experiences, cultural influences, carries the complexes that all of us carry. She is made just like me – I can look in the mirror and see traces of Sarah Palin in the reflection. The same white face, about the same age, the same gender, two arms, two legs, two breasts, eyes that weep, a mouth that smiles. The depth psychologist holds the space, working toward a time and container in which an authentic dialogue might occur. But this requires holding the tension of the opposites.

The lightbulb came on for me when I realized that the opportunity for the living, third thing to be born is only possible as long as these opposites stay in relationship with one another. This is the job of the depth psychologist – to keep the opposites in relationship. I cannot do that if I stand on the far end of the pole – on either end. Even the one that feels to me to be the most tolerant and respectful of others. I can kneel in the middle and be respectful and tolerant of both sides. The hardwork, of course, comes in tuning my ear to the foreign language of intolerance and violence and attempt to understand (stand under) those words. Because these people, too, want to be heard. I know from painful, personal experience that sometimes I must find a way to set aside my own beliefs, rants, opinions, and stories so room is made for the Other to be heard. I believe that this might be the only way for the dialogue to begin –if I just shut up and listen. Really listen.

I am trying to not be too naïve regarding all of this. I know dangerous things are happening right now. People are getting hurt. The world feels so unsafe right now, as if we were all standing on a massive earthquake and we have no idea when the ground beneath usis going to stop rocking. I don’t know if it’s enough to be a loving witness to all of it – the ugliness, thehopeful, the violence, the light vigils, the peace signs and the rifle sights,the ones who only want to hate and the ones who only want peace. But I know that what I’ve done thus far hasn’t made any dent in all of it. I only end up angry and deaf.

My vow to myself as I move forward into this new year is to pause, cup my hand to my heart and ear, and listen with intention to what wants to be heard. I vow to extend my arms such that no one feels excluded, unheard, shut off or out, and such that the opposites within and without my own self are in relationship. And I vow to remain awake in the garden so that I might recognize when the third, living thing comes into this world. No matter how long it might take.

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Comment by Colleen Hendrick on January 25, 2011 at 6:28am

I think this opens up a great discussion, Bonnie. I agree that when we judge we become part of the polarization, and I know that we must all take stands or become wishy washy - though our stands mustn't be rigid and habitual, but porous enough to allow new information, new perspectives and therefore the opportunity for shifts and growth. Judgment can be discernment - a place where we are able to "read" the story. For instance, if someone had had the discernment to read the assassin's story and judge its trajectory as dangerous to others, such useless carnage could have been avoided.

Comment by Ian Pitt on January 25, 2011 at 3:18am

It does seem that by judging others we perpetuate polarisation and demonisation, but such judgments are not the dead end they seem to be. We can make the mistake of disowning our judgments, and thus adding a tension within ourselves to the tension that is already present in the world, or we can use them to deepen our interactions with others and with ourselves.

Those we are judging misuse their judgments in attempts to end conversations, triumph over others or shore up their own defences, but we don’t need to misuse our judgments in the same way. If instead we use our judgments – even apparently unhelpful judgments like ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘self-righteous’ - as the beginnings of relationships between ourselves and others, then we can work towards the holding of the tension that Robin aspires to.

For example, by judging someone as narrow-minded and resisting the urge to reject them solely on this basis, we open up more questions than answers: Why do they think this way? What have they experienced? What are they afraid of? What is a narrow mind? Is that good sometimes? Am I too broad-minded? Why do I think like I do? Such questions (and further judgments) open up a perspective for seeing the one we are judging more clearly, despite the initial negativity. This clearer vision of the other also results in a clearer vision of ourselves – we are then confronted not just by otherness, but by questions about our own beliefs and identities.

Such open-ended judgments enable us to both deepen our selves and allow others to be present to us more fully. Thus judging is vital to relationships – we cannot listen if we do not also judge; problems only arise when we lose sight of the contingency and open-endedness of our judgments. 

Comment by Michael Harkins on January 24, 2011 at 8:45am
I thoroughly enjoyed your piece. The tension of the opposites is one of my favorite Jungian concepts. I just picked up "The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking" because of this same reason. I work in a technical field and see shadows, fanaticism, polarization, etc... all the time. I am inspired when I see Jungian concepts permeating other fields, such as education, politics and business. We are trying to build a better world, we can only do it together - with others...
Comment by Robin Reynolds Barre on January 23, 2011 at 9:13pm
Thank you, Bonnie, for featuring this post and for your comments below. It *is* hard, isn't it? I have, for so long, justified my "Othering" by saying that those people over there are not like me because I am compassionate, a good listener, and tolerant of difference, and they aren't. I was aware of the hypocrisy of that statement every time I thought it, felt it, and said it. But I couldn't figure out a way to bridge the gap. Because I didn't want to!!!I didn't want to be intolerant. Enter the transcendent function. It is a hard, hard practice, but one worth the work. So I keep working at it. A lifelong task, I guess. So thank you, Bonnie, for being witness to it, and thank you, too, for finally pushing past your own difficulties to do so.
Comment by Bonnie Bright on January 23, 2011 at 3:52pm

Robin: First of all, thank you so much for this blog post. I have to admit, I have started reading it several times since you posted it and never allowed myself to get very far before distracting myself with other activities. I think, having finally made it all the way through this time, the reason is probably because this topic touches into my own complexes around the "Other' as you have so articulately pointed out.

Not only is the subject matter critical to the news of the day/week/month with the shooting in Tucson, but you have also tapped into the age-old issue of the archetypal "Other" which has caused human conflict between individuals, nations, and cultures since the early beginnings of humanity.

As hard as it is for me to read about this and really allow myself to be affected by it, I am also concurrently aware thanks to your contribution and efforts, how important it is for me to do. How else can the topic, the very energy and entity of the issue "be held" unless we each individually are willing to take it on? Indeed, if I consider myself a "depth psychologist", this is my work in the world.

And, of course, Jung himself suggested some of the most valuable work an individual can do is to work on our own shadow, not with harshness, but with curiosity and compassion and non-judgment. Erich Neumann, one of Jung's students and contemporaries--and an amazing thinker and author in his own right--wrote, "It is only when I have experienced myself as dark (not as a sinner) that I shall be successful in accepting the dark ego in my neighbour; I realise my solidarity with him precisely because 'I too am dark', not simply because 'I too am light' ( in Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, 1990, p. 95). By not polarizing to one side or the other, I can get a better view of what is really going on.

Thanks again, Robin, for taking the time to write this stirring, important piece. It is a wonderful inspiration.

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