The Ethics of Insight

11/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

One of the more mysterious puzzles I've encountered on a journey to try to comprehend our massive cultural epidemic of distraction includes a lack of implementation of some of the knowledge we have gained about human development through in-depth psychology. Such information is frequently used as manipulation for the advertising of products--both political and commercial--yet it seems absent when seeking to understand what makes distraction tick or what might be our resistance to gaining a general clarity of focus.

Distraction, as used here, is the redirection of attention from the social, economic, political, and climate emergencies that afflict us locally and globally. And, in a more general way, there is the lack of critical thinking about some of the implications of the vast pool of existing information, scientific discovery and of insight.

Without examining the fundamental assumptions of our individual lives, we won't ever have a chance of real collaboration and investigation in terms of literally saving the planet from human destruction. Without being able to take a step back from the competition-fueled insistence on our quickened pace, we will never have the chance to take stock.

I can understand how hard this might be since, once any of us feel stabilized by a particular way of thinking, healing or believing, to reverse that basis for living in mid-stream can seem to be an insurmountable task. And yet, without the discipline of informed thought, how can there be freedom of movement, of thinking or of action?

I have been studying what Carl Jung called "the shadow," the parts within each of us that we fear or loathe and from which we tend to hide. Jung talked of integrating the dark sides within us all as the only hope against compulsively demonizing others or being compelled to avoid the imperfections that ultimately allow us to need and to love. Through my practice of psychotherapy, I have come to better understand the dread of "sudden exposure"--the sudden and unexpected leakages of feelings we thought we had under better control and the accompanying shame and humiliation. Yet, without exposing our own imperfections, it is hard to be open enough to admit confusion, since it seems that doing so is too brutal a failure to have any positive outcome.

Out of curiosity, I recently opened a book that was lying around the house which was written by one of my favorite psychologists, Erik Erikson. The depth and breadth and humanity he expressed has amazed me over the years, but the title spoke directly to these concerns, and it was a book I hadn't picked up in awhile. It is titled Insight and Responsibility. How appropriate, I thought. Erikson's essay on The Golden Rule grabbed me in a kind of uncanny way. He wrote about a system of morality based on the threat of punishment, abandonment or shame versus one of ethics based on mutuality and a deeper version of caring enough about each other using "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I find it wonderful that Erikson came up with the idea that ethics and a more cooperative understanding is useful and perhaps the real hope against all of the destructive forces he saw in 1964; how prescient. It brings home to me how the harshness of our religions are not only rigid and demanding of behaviors that human beings cannot always accomplish, but it also hit me as defining the massive impossibility of incorporating the psychology of motivation as long as our religious fixations are fixed in mind, spirit and behavior.

I'd like to open this discussion. How can we examine the implications and possibilities of new directions based on our accumulated knowledge if these new directions conflict with our rules of play for the sport of all of life? And then, if we cannot, are we not doomed to move in place, in isolated spaces of believing nothing more than our own stories?