Centuries ago, explorers launched the Age of Discovery. Now it’s time to launch the Age of Self-Discovery. Our vessel is in need of favorable winds. Storm clouds of worldwide calamity are gathering on the horizon.
Global warming and nuclear weapons proliferation are two thunderheads of approaching destruction. Humanity’s response to these dangers has amounted to “the social psychosis of denial,” as one social reformer calls it. Psychologists have other names—learned helplessness, normalcy bias, and motivated blindness—for our tendency to deny approaching or existing danger.
We are likely to deny reality to the degree that we are in denial of important aspects of our human nature. As David Brooks of The New York Times puts it: “. . . the most seductive evasion is the one that leads us to deny the underside of our own nature.”
If we deny our own nature, how can we expect to save Nature? If we don’t care to know ourselves, we won’t care enough about saving our planet.
If we stop denying our nature, what will we discover about ourselves? Depth psychology contends that inner aggression and inner passivity are two dominant influences in our psyche that shape our personality and perceptions. I believe that our better nature, our courageous self, is entangled in the conflict between inner aggression (the superego or inner critic) and inner passivity (the unconscious or subordinate ego). We haven’t broken out of social psychosis because our humanity is trapped in this inner conflict.
We’re afraid to make many kinds of decisions, especially ones requiring courage and inner fortitude, because our authoritarian superego will challenge us and send us scudding back into inner passivity. Other times, our voice of inner passivity itself talks us out of being brave or assertive. Much of the time our consciousness is entangled in a conflict-ridden dialogue in which inner aggression accuses and inner passivity defends. (Examples of such dialogue are provided in several of my books.)
When our intelligence penetrates into the core of the conflict, we discover our authentic self, our legitimate inner authority, our source of courage and wisdom. The conflict itself dies away because we no longer fuel it with our unwitting participation.
In this conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity, we unwittingly end up representing one side or the other. We feel, in one instance, that we are locating our true north with our own thoughts, words, or feelings, when instead we are only expressing the sentiments of inner passivity. This passivity is, in part, our instinct to be defensive and doubtful. We think or speak for inner passivity when we defend ourselves to others or when we rationalize or account for our self-doubt, inaction, and indifference. Through our ego, it feels as if these thoughts and feelings are our own true voice, rather than a deep voice from our unconscious mind.
With inner aggression, we also display a similar lack of awareness and authenticity. We come under the influence of inner aggression, absorbing the headwinds of criticism, disapproval, harassment, and even mockery that our superego blows our way. It can feel as if our superego is a legitimate conscience, a true system of navigation, when in fact it is mostly a demanding, demeaning inner tyrant. (See, “The Tyrant that Rules Our Inner Life.”) Through our inner passivity, we allow the superego to be captain of our ship. Again, we are inauthentic. If we can’t captain our own little vessel, we’ll be excess baggage on the voyage of humanity.
To repeat, we find our authentic self and become capable of brave and right action when we transcend the conflict between inner aggression and inner passivity. Now we are able to step out of our unwitting participation in the conflict. We move out of the cross-hairs. Our intelligence is enhanced because the conflict has been absorbing much of our psychic and mental energy and because we are now more aware of essential inner dynamics.
The Conflict Affects National Life
The consequences of this unconscious conflict are visible on the shore line of our national life. For instance, Republicans and Democrats, when operating in a dysfunctional manner, replay the inner conflict for the world to see. In large measure, the superego (inner aggression) is the source of the ideological or doctrinaire Right Wing’s perceptions, values, and manner of relating. Unconsciously, such right-wingers are mimicking the moods, mannerism, and methodology of inner aggression. They are emotionally aligned with this major player in the psyche, particularly in terms of their sense of entitlement concerning the exercise of power and authority.
Meanwhile, left-wingers often represent the characteristics of inner passivity—compliance, compromise, and appeals to reason. People on the Left often react to the Right Wing’s rhetoric and demands in much the same way that, through inner passivity, we all react to the superego. The Right Wing exercises an authority that can be irrational and cruel, to which the Left Wing reacts—defensively, passively, and passive-aggressively—in ways that can emphasize a sense of injustice and victimhood.
Both sides engage in a psychological “acting-out” that brings out their worst aspects. Neither Republicans nor Democrats represent the authentic self of the citizens, while the citizens often don’t expect any better because they are not representing, at this deeper level, their own best interests.
(Since inner passivity and inner aggression are major ingredients of human nature, people on the Right can at times be passive, while those on the Left can be aggressive. The essential fact is that outer conflict is inevitable, along with acts of folly, when the inner conflict between aggression and passivity is unresolved.)
Our authentic self is more highly refined than either our ego or our personality. Like democracy, it represents a higher form of government (self-government) that requires our participation in its evolvement. Through self-discovery we realize we’re crew-mates all in the same boat. We find our greatest pleasure in travelling together, pulling together, seeking our destiny on safer shores.