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Dr. Robert Aziz Headshot

Adding to Arianna's Reflections on Jung, Archetypes and Sarah Palin's Mama Grizzlies

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The idea that within all human beings there exists 'instincts' or innate patterns of behavior was widely accepted prior to Jung. Jung, for his part, took things a step further when he identified, based on his own clinical observations, the existence of innate patterns of meaning. Initially, Jung spoke of the collective unconscious as containing both instincts and archetypes. In later theoretical revisions, however, Jung would describe the archetype as such as having two poles -- one producing transpersonal behaviors, the other producing transpersonal apprehensions.

The hero archetype could be used as an example of how this works. It is not uncommon for people to put themselves at risk to help others who are in danger. It is not uncommon for individuals to take action without thought or regard for their own safety. Jung would see this as an example of the instinctual side of the hero archetype taking over. On the other hand, it can also be observed that bystanders watching this unfold will often feel deeply moved by what they are watching. For Jung the highly charged, spine-tingling feelings of those observing the rescue are attributable to the transpersonal meaning that has been triggered within them by way of the archetype. This is to say those who are observing the act are not simply experiencing one individual rescuing another, rather, under the influence of the archetype of the hero, they are experiencing an act of mythological proportions. This is why people are so readily compelled to attach the title of hero to those who place themselves in harm's way to help others.

Yet such labeling, we should also understand, might not be without ill consequence. There is indeed an enormous difference between acting heroically under the influence of the archetype and being a hero in an absolute sense of that term. True heroic action is seldom a question of choice and it is equally seldom that those who act heroically feel entirely deserving of the credit they are given for their actions. To the extent, then, we identify an individual with the archetype, to the extent we impose by way of concretization the transpersonal on the personal, to the extent the transpersonal supplants the personal, we risk dehumanizing the individual for whom we have such high regard.

Archetypal energies can have tremendous power over us and it clearly is no easy task bringing personal and transpersonal energies into a functional and balanced relationship, even under the best of circumstances. Historically, the ideologies and ideals of secular and religious worldviews have served to propel us into the archetypal realm. More problematic still, is when individuals or groups use the archetypal to manipulate and exploit others. So we must always ask, what is it to touch the ground? What is it to touch the ground, not in terms of how we view our fellow citizens ideologically, but rather, as human beings? What is it to touch the ground in terms of the genuine needs for healthcare and education? What is it to touch the ground in terms of the realities of the costs of war, human and otherwise? What is it to touch the ground, not in terms of the collective or religious values with which we concretely identify ourselves, but in terms of how we actually treat people? What is it to touch the ground in marriage, not in the sense of being married to the concretized ideal of marriage, but in terms of a genuine process of intimacy? What is it to touch the ground, and here we come back to Arianna's important point, in terms of the formulation and presentation of genuine political policy, rather than simply using and abusing the archetypal image of 'Mama Grizzlies' to deflect attention away from that critical task?

To the extent the archetypal becomes a substitute in our political forums for the formulation and presentation of substantive policy, we find ourselves on a road that history has more than shown bodes unfavorably for democracies. The archetypal bereft of substantive policy has historically been the language of demagogues. Similarly, the grotesque and altogether shameless archetypalization of culture has been the hallmark of totalitarian states. Would we want to continue down this road? I think not. Hopefully, we will never see the day when the archetypalization of our leadership would render policy discussions to be of no political consequence whatsoever. Hopefully, we will never come to a place where our Presidents and Prime Ministers, moving in the same archetypal orbit as Sarah Palin's Mama Grizzlies, would be portrayed in word and image as omnipotent and omniscient leaders bereft of human attributes and limitations. Hopefully, for the sake of the evolution of our culture, we will not succumb to such mindlessness.