“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happiness would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.” Carl Jung
In my post, Growing Through Depression, I explained how depression often represents an opportunity ripe for the transformation and growth of the personality. Depression can be fruitfully treated when seen as a death and rebirth process wherein an outworn worldview or life path gives way to a new orientation that provides greater expression to the emerging personality. In this post I look at some of the social dimensions of depression within our society.
We live in a country founded upon the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that the converse of these human experiences–e.g., death, limitation, and sadness–are increasingly relegated to the dark corners of our collective consciousness. In a fascinating book exploring the nature of violence and healing in America, Jungian author Janet Dallett writes: “North Americans are famously idealistic. Our cultural images of what people are supposed to be have become increasingly constricted and constricting, until we have little room for anything less perfect than a consistently smiling face, a well-adapted extraverted persona, a thoroughly deodorized body, and a white, perfectly regular set of teeth. Our ideas about what life should be no longer leave room for the terrible realities of pain and suffering, anxiety, rage, name-calling, violent fantasies, fist fights on the playground, barroom brawls, adolescent talk of death and destruction, terrorism and war.” Dallett is not denying the presence (or prevalence) of violence and suffering in society, but she is trying to bring attention to our growing intolerance of their expression; that is, our collective preoccupation with safety, “acceptable behavior,” and happiness.
One might reasonably ask: “Well, isn’t it good that we try to do everything we can to protect ourselves and our children from violence? And isn’t it a sign of our social and spiritual development that we continue to search for ever more effective ways to extinguish mental illness?” The answers to these questions are more complex than we might initially think.
In a previous post (Teach Your Children Well) I discussed how the unlived lives of parents can influence the behaviors and psychological development of their children. For example, two parents who are very driven and “workaholic” in their approach to life find that their 15 year-old son is stubbornly lazy, lacking in ambition, and that he has begun smoking pot. Although the other children in the family have identified with their parents’ worldview, this child seems to be behaving in direct opposition to it. Looking beneath the surface, we come to see that he is giving expression to the parents’ shadow, or disowned self. He is living their unlived life. Whereas his parents and siblings spend all of their time doing and pursuing, he is compelled to just be. In reality, the parents and children, including the “problem child,” are living their lives in a compulsive way, mostly unconscious of what really motivates their behavior. We could call it workaholism vs “slothaholism.” If the parents become more conscious of the psychological undercurrents set into motion by their disowned life, and if they make an honest effort to learn how to relax and let life come to them rather than habitually imposing their will upon it, their son might be freed to experience his innate calling and a healthy level of ambition. He will no longer need to unconsciously act out their unlived life for they will be living its positive aspects themselves.
It is important to realize that the same dynamics illustrated in the above example are also active within larger groups of people. Just as individuals and families have unlived lives, so do organizations, clubs, companies, churches, countries, etc.
One of the ways that our unlived life communicates its presence, paradoxically, is through our illnesses. Depression is a prime example. As mentioned earlier, depression usually occurs when an outmoded and too-constricting approach to life must die so that a new, more creative and nourishing orientation can take its place. Thus, depression is a transformation process in which our lived life surrenders to some aspect of our unlived life. However, in order for this natural process to complete itself we may need to suffer through a period of sadness, loneliness, confusion, and lostness. Like seeds that require a period of dormancy and cold before they can germinate, so we must sometimes struggle through the darkness of depression before the promise of transformation can take root. So too, the ego must occasionally be brought to its knees before it experiences the reality of the soul and learns to honor its wisdom. [The experience of painful emotions is just one ingredient in nature’s crucible of transformation and personality growth. Consciousness is also necessary, for without consciousness suffering never finds its true end and so just repeats itself. One role of psychotherapy is to bring conscious insight to our suffering so that knowledge and personality change can occur.]
Pain and suffering have never been popular and, thanks in large part to the pharmaceutical industry, their role in healing and personality development continue to be marginalized, villified, and undermined. As Dr. Dallett observes: “Today, psychoactive drugs are routinely used to support the happiness myth, to enforce perfectionist, constricted, idealistic values that are out of touch with dark psychological realities….They are too often imagined to be a cure in themselves and are used indiscriminately. They function to allay fears of deviance–e.g., eccentricity or individuality–calming the anxieties of parents, friends, relatives, and doctors who cannot tolerate the pain and unusual behaviors that are part of any deep healing process.” Dr. Dallett is not against the judicious use of psychotropic medications. Many of these medications can be genuinely helpful, even crucial, to the healing process of some people. What is of concern is when they are robotically prescribed by physicians and impatiently sought out by patients before the psyche has ever been given the opportunity to communicate its underlying message or guide a genuine transformation.
Psychologists have long known that repressed anger is a frequent cause of depression. What happens to the unlived life of people and the unlived life of society when psychotropic medications are increasingly used, as they are in the United States, to muffle and suppress the voice of our unlived life? Where does the anger, undeveloped potential, and creativity that underlie our depression (and other mental illnesses) go? Are they used to nourish the flames of our personal transformation and, thereby, the transformation of society and the world? Or are they, rather, passed on, as illustrated in the example of the family above, in a more unconscious, and therefore more volatile and potentially harmful form, to our friends, families, communities and the world at large? Can you see, for example, how the disowned anger of some members of society might be violently expressed by other members? (This is part of the reason that crime shows are so popular.) In a self-indulgent country that exhibits an increasing sense of entitlement to “happiness,” who gets to carry our anger, privation, and sadness?
Sometimes it seems we believe that we can blow all of our anger and pain and sadness into a happy-face balloon and let it float away into the sky never to be seen or heard from again. But nature herself will pop that balloon, for the unlived life of one person, group, country, etc. must necessarily, often involuntarily, be taken up by another. For this reason, persons who seek social justice will find their greatest contribution in simply, and courageously, shouldering the burden of their own individuality, destiny, and unlived life. Consider the life of Abraham Lincoln, a man who suffered from recurring bouts of intense depression. Would he have been able to write the Gettysburg Address, or guide our country through the Civil War had he not first wrestled with and reconciled the internal conflicts at war within his own soul? Would he have been the same person or have developed the same depth of integrity and consciousness had he not taken up the cross of his own personality? It is important to realize that the struggles we face in life are never just our own, and the solutions we choose will either lighten our mutual burden or increase it.
1. Dallett, Janet O. Listening to the Rhino: Violence and Healing in a Scientific Age. Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press, NY 2008.
2. Mindell, Arnold. The Dreambody in Relationships. Rouledge & Kegan Paul, London 1987.
3. Wickes, Frances G. The Inner World of Childhood. (2nd ed.). Sigo Press, Boston 1978.