A Participant in National Self-Sabotage

We need to keep a lid on the id.

Who dares suggest the American dream could be thwarted by an indistinct entity a mere two letters long? The CIA certainly doesn’t have a dossier on it. Yet one ingredient of personal suffering and national self-sabotage is the id. Yes, I know that’s an odd, whimsical word, one that many of us, should it zip across our mind, dismiss as harmless jargon.

Yet psychoanalysis has taken the id very seriously. The discipline defines the id as the primitive, unconscious part of our mind that induces us to pursue self-centered gratification, often at the expense of wise self-regulation. For reasons I’m about to discuss, the id appears to be particularly virulent in the American psyche.

The id is like a virus or bug of the unconscious mind. And it can wreak as much havoc on the national scene as swarms of computer viruses. We have an impressive national-security apparatus in place to block out hackers. But in blindness to the enemy within, nobody’s minding the id.

Civilization and national life are extensions of our consciousness. Despite that direct correlation between the inner and outer world, the media hardly ever talk about the psychological dysfunction of our leaders or write about the mental-emotional components in everyday political and social conflicts. To give them some due, the media are beginning to explore the psychological dynamics of family life and to look deeper into the roots of the 2008 economic crisis.

Any media discussion of the enemy within is usually a reference to domestic terrorists. The inner world of our secret motivations and intentions seems to be taboo. Yet psychological dysfunction is at play in our financial meltdowns, no-win political brinksmanship, nuclear-weapons proliferation, and global warming. One aspect of self-sabotage is our stubborn refusal to speak more openly about these subversive realities.

The id is one such reality, a secret inner saboteur that can be kept in check with more insight and awareness. I referred to the id metaphorically as a bug or virus, but it is more accurately understood as a psychological drive. It compels us to pursue the pleasure principle, often at the expense of restraint, self-regulation, and healthy living. It subscribes to the ideology of self-aggrandizement. Our id is not infused with the consciousness of evolving humanity, so it pursues the base, instinctive forms of pleasure associated with sensation—sex, aggression, power, superiority, and accumulation. It has no affinity for integrity, wisdom, and compassion. Sometimes it’s moderated by our superego and unconscious ego, which are other agencies of our psyche (see “The Politburo in Your Psyche.”) It also answers at times to common sense, social mores, and guilt. Other times the law keeps its most wanton thoughtlessness in check.

Still the mischief it makes in our psyche spills into national life. It incites, for instance, our entitlement mentality, as it denies the need for active acknowledgement of global warming or self-regulation of unrestrained individualism.

What conditions have enabled the id to dominate the personality of so many Americans? Centuries ago an aggressive, laissez-faire mercantile culture was transplanted here from England and elsewhere in Europe, and it may have fused with a “take-all-you-can-get” approach to conquering and possessing the limitless wilderness. After the yoke of English oppression was lifted following the Revolutionary War, the jubilant American psyche, ravenous for the perks of manifest destiny, appears to have produced the conqueror and hustler archetypes. These two exuberant sub-personalities swept across the frontier uttering the mantra, “We can now take and have whatever we want.” In the 1790s, as Joyce Appleby describes in “Capitalism and a New Social Order,” the definition of virtue underwent a reversal—from putting public interests above private aspirations to pursuing personal gratification in an opportunistic new world. This ideology, wedded to the American Dream, has since kept at bay attempts to upgrade to a more balanced system of national life, one that produces more happiness than does self-preoccupation.

Even Ivy League colleges, our best centers of learning, have stumbled blindly into the embrace of arrogance and further tipped the inner psychic balance in favor of the id. Andrew Delbanco, director of American studies at Columbia University, writes that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton were founded by “stringent Protestants” on the belief that the elite were granted their status through God’s mercy, not through any worthiness of their own. Accordingly, members of the elite were expected to work and live on behalf of others. Now, according to Prof. Delbanco, the elite college culture “encourages smugness and self satisfaction. . .” Deans and presidents greet new students “with congratulations for being the best and brightest ever to walk through the gates.” They are taught, he says, that those who don’t attend an Ivy League or equivalent school are beneath them. What they aren’t taught is basic self-knowledge.

The id thrives on psychological ignorance. Behind our suffering and self-sabotage is an inner world that is terra incognita. Instead of exploring this inner terrain, we cover up or deny that we are, in some measure, creatures whose life journey is a misadventure in the backwoods of our unconscious mind.

Our psychological ignorance is not something for which we are to blame. The inner world is our last frontier, and the time has come to begin to populate it with our presence and our consciousness. We’ll go on producing self-sabotage and suffer greatly if we don’t make a conscious effort to raise our individual and collective awareness. We experience humility when we uncover the mysterious dynamics of our psyche because we expose the blindness of our egotism and the marauding of the id. That humility becomes the foundation of wisdom and inner power.