Many of us are hoping—perhaps beyond reason—that we will take a large evolutionary step forward as a result of the corona virus/covid-19 crisis. After all, we are being plunged into a sudden awareness of death, and death prompts introspection and life review in deep and profound ways. How instructive and sobering! Powerful emotions are being summoned for many of us. But only time will tell whether we can learn from and hold onto these lessons after the crisis has ended.
Relevant to these times of crisis, Carl Jung had many compelling ideas. Jung observed that there is within all of us a deeper self—a kind of conductor of our life force. Think of it as DNA for the personality. The self (Jung never capitalized the word self) inexorably seeks to actualize its blueprint and opposes developments that deviate too far from the plan. Its opposition can manifest in any number of ways, prompting us to notice imbalances in our life and properly adjust our attitudes and convictions. For purposes of this essay, you have to be willing to engage in a mental exercise and grant Jung [as well as me] the intellectual curiosity needed to hold several concepts in mind, self, being one of them.
In a process Jung termed individuation, the self “demands“ that we use our lives to become increasingly aware of our blueprint and bring it into actuality, however much a struggle that inevitably induces. Actually, individuation is both perilous and enlivening. But most assuredly, at times, it confronts us with our deepest fears and doubts; a grueling subjective experience Jung likened to a “dark night of the soul.”
Let’s say for the individual and collective there can come a moment when a longstanding ruling order is on the brink of change, if not collapse. Jung maintains when we take things too far in one direction away from the blueprint, an innate compensatory mechanism is activated deep within our unconscious to correct the imbalance. The process of this deeply engaging experience is what he termed, the transcendent function. For Jung, transcendence does not refer to rising above, but rather climbing across. Therefore, the transcendent function is the process of building a bridge that connects conscious to unconscious in service of actualizing/becoming one’s self. Put another way, it is the condition (often a conflict or collision) compelling a person to begin and sustain an active and vital connection between ego* and self. I believe the transcendent function applies to both the individual in his/her personal quest to become increasingly alive and authentic in the world, and to society in its quest to support civilization.
Imagine a seesaw with a heavy person on one end of it. One-sided. Off-balance. Too much weight on one side and not enough onthe other. The unconscious spontaneously reacts by applying pressure, as it were, on the opposite side of the seesaw to restore balance in its structure. But humans like the way things have been organized—whether useful or not—and often insist on the sense of security provided by the existing order. Further, even if we do begin a new trajectory based upon the course correction instigated by compensation, invariably we wind up repeating an overdetermined heaviness, only this time on the other side of the seesaw. In this way, we could say the human psyche operates in a “bipolar” fashion. Rarely, do we make our way to the more difficult middle place or fulcrum—in between both ends of the seesaw—where we must hold the tension and become centered. Instead, we persist and insist—mainly out of fear—that we must remain on one side or the other, resulting in neurosis and other pathological symptomatology.
It’s worth wondering whether as a collective we’ve loaded up one side of the seesaw due to many of our selfish and greedy attitudes; for example, our draining repetitive patterns of exploiting our planet and others of lesser means for the short-term gains of material accumulation. Perhaps in today’s corona/covid-19 crisis, hoarding toilet paper and cleaning supplies signals the awakening of our wildest fears and a self-protective selfishness, as if more toilet paper, or other material possessions could protect us from our deepest fear—death. Further, it is possible we are causing just enough ecological disruption to produce conditions ripe for this pandemic. Indeed, many observers posit we are “being warned” by climate change, pandemics, etc. of a profound imbalance and pushed toward some form of correction that implies cooperation, collaboration and “sharing” as core principles. Is it possible melting ice caps, sea levels, air pollution, deforestation, drought, plastic in the oceans…are in part the result of unexamined and unacknowledged fear, manipulation, and domination over others and the earth itself?
However dramatic and threatening these conditions are, our ego resists change and will fight blindly and doggedly in order to keep the prevailing ruling order from collapsing. The ego avoids at all costs that dark night of the soul for all its suffering and terror. In the midst of change and the ensuing pressures to reconfigure and redefine ourselves in the context of such upheaval, there can be a retreat back to the familiar order. It’s as if—like toddlers—we take the first steps to start in a new direction, but run back to mom or dad for comfort and holding because the separation from what we’ve known and counted on for security, is too scary. Jung called this tendency, regressive restoration.
But if our ego can be strengthened and become more flexible, we put ourselves in a better position for real change. The ego begins to listen to and even dialogue with the self, a process that can sound a bit strange but is in reality quite like many forms of inner dialoguing in which we engage—only far more consequential. In fact, an interior relationship can develop potentiating new sources of psychic energy, to be freed up for creative meaningful pursuits (using our life to become increasingly aware and authentic). The ego, acting respectfully and with more integrity towards the self, begins to allow for the possibility of reorganization. While it’s no picnic for the ego to submit to the larger forces of the self’s compensatory process, the effort is worthwhile. If we can endure the inner turmoil and tension produced by the transcendent function, new possibilities for adaptation and transformation begin to emerge. In this context, evolutionary steps can be taken to reshape and reorganize previously highly cherished, but maladaptive—often destructive—belief and value systems. And while regressive restoration is understandable—given just how much time and effort have gone into building the ruling order, a strengthened and flexible ego—newly connected to and in dialogue with the self—can bring understanding and compassion to the clinging behavior. Again, for the toddler, it would be tantamount to mom or dad providing the needed attention and nurturing during frightening episodes of insecurity plus the generous encouragement to continue exploring and striking out into the larger space of the “playground.”
The existing ruling order—as much as it provides security, familiarity, predictability—must be surrendered for deeper change to occur. Again, for Jung, our psychological system is wired for growth and there is within us an unconscious program that seeks to compensate for overdetermined conscious attitudes held too rigidly—identifications, positions, and value systems that have been fostered in us, and conditioned, from a variety of sources. In fact, Jung believed the manifestation of pathological symptoms—both for the individual and society—result from the deep system activating its program for self-correction as a response to our unfortunate tendency to ignore or deny its dictates. History is flooded with examples of what happens when we turn away from the symptoms for too long or sweep them under the rug to pretend they’re not there to begin with.
To apply this idea to the political realm, too many of our leaders have demonstrated and acted out of small and scared egos. They are caught in the terror of losing control, seeing before them the growing threat of their precious dominance giving way to something new. They are hardly prepared to work in concert with the compensatory process, driven by and leading to the activation of the transcendent function. That would require confronting their shame—if any exists. Such hardened and arrogant resistance will not tame for long the demand for correction and reorganization. Instead, the resistance/insistence dynamic leads to a toxic and infectious narcissism exhibited by all too many in our political leadership; particularly those who have decided to fall in line with the current administration. I believe they are guilty of abusing power positions and seem absolute in their unwillingness to release their grip to the point of appearing to have evil intent. Similar to the fear that compels a person to repeat multiple plastic surgeries in an effort to cling to a more youthful appearance, it leads inevitably, to a kind of grotesquery. Perhaps, today’s pathologies, including coronavirus/covid-19—emerging within and around us—are the real evidence.
On the other hand, it is possible that our current political landscape might afford us a moment for appropriate integration of more socially aware policies. The blatant exposure in our current public health crisis of an almost total absence of real safety netting for “minorities,” the “underclass,” even for the disappearing middle class slipping into poverty, certainly screams for it. Will a more realistic egalitarian platform infuse the American polity with insightful and pragmatic caring? The upcoming election will answer this question to a significant degree and is likely a point in history more pivotal than ever.
It remains possible, however, that the American character—pushed along by the transcendent function—may be in for a transformation. After all, we are seeing beautiful examples of the bright and compassionate sides of broader social character too. Everyday since the outbreak of the pandemic, countless numbers of “heroes” have been working the front lines of this public health crisis battle, demonstrating constancy, commitment, durability, social justice advocacy and equity. Many are sustaining trauma from the almost constant exposure to death and dying; some may require mental health treatment for years to come. Much less dramatically, many of us who are able and willing, have been discovering the value of slowing down, which, in our current ethos can feel quite counter-cultural. But slowing down facilitates a new kind of attention. For example, for the first time in a long time, families are playing board games, baking bread, and sitting down together for dinner. These activities and others, may seem insignificant compared to the pandemic, but are actually important for increasing social-emotional learning and building connections.
That said, we also see evidence of growing polarization. The corona virus-covid 19 crisis is exposing deep divisions in American society, which are steadily increasing as the pandemic rages on. And as the sides driven by fears of all kinds, become more alienated from each other, it remains to be seen whether the larger political “seesaw” will continue to support all of the weight being loaded up on both sides. Can it flex enough or will it snap under such extreme pressure? How will we begin the difficult process of climbing across toward the center when our political leadership cannot/will not do so themselves? How can we allow ourselves to be pushed by the transcendent function toward essential values of cooperation, compromise, and sharing, when our president, along with many others, seem so bent on dividing us even further?
As we stumble forward, there may be a call heard beneath all the clamor and tension. Perhaps it is the self—through its transcendent function—inviting, cajoling, whispering, even shocking us to have the courage and integrity to submit to the difficult task of individuation as individuals and a nation. A call to strengthen and soften our egos so as to endure the consequences of change to the pre-established ruling order, within ourselves and our society. Understanding the problem of regressive restoration and learning to cooperate with the transcendent function, can help us climb across—with sincere effort and growing discernment—toward the fulcrum on the proverbial seesaw. While we must keep our eyes open to our understandable habit of fearing change, an equally powerful commitment to perseverance required by the self will be necessary to face its perennial insistence on rebalancing and reorganizing ourselves and society.
* In this essay, I define Ego as the unique functional unit we are in the world. Ego clings to security and resists change, since it is fueled by the self-preservational instinct. Ego fears change as it often conflates it with death. But ego loves pleasure and seeks reward too. Put more poetically, ego is the boat we’re in that is floating on the ocean of life.