Part of an ongoing series on "Analyzing the American Psyche."
In the third and final installment of my interview with Jungian psychoanalyst Murray Stein, president of the International School of Analytical Psychology, we continue our discussion on the link between anxiety and democracy. In this segment, we turn to some of the larger archetypal forces and American myths operating behind the election. The following is an edited version of our conversation.
Pythia: The force and fury of Hurricane Sandy reminded me that although democracy rests on the shoulders of the individual voter, there are other factors at work in this election that, to some extent, none of us can really control -- call it destiny, history, nature, the will of God or some other transpersonal force.
Stein: Thinking of this terrible storm falling upon the country so near to Election Day, I am reminded of a scene from Richard Wagner's opera cycle, The Ring. The chief god, Wotan, goes to consult Erda, the great goddess who lives underground and who can foretell the future. He asks her what is going to happen to himself and to his kingdom of Valhalla. Erda rises slowly out of the ground and tells him in a deep voice that his hold on power is doomed and that Valhalla will be destroyed. It's a bad moment for Wotan!
Sometimes democratic elections also feel like this. The people of the nation are asked for their choice, and when the voice of the people speaks, we may fear for our future. It's a moment in the nation's ongoing life when we hear the source of political power speak out. The final decision is in the hands of no single person, but of the whole voting population. It's like a force of nature. This is the difference between democracies and aristocracies or theocracies. On this one day in November, the collective voice of the people declares who will be put forward as the leadership for the next four years.
Listening to the voice of the people is a kind of mystical moment in our secular world. It's like waiting for an oracle to make a pronouncement. Who will the people elect? Where is the collective will going to take us as a nation? The polls predict now this and now that, but there can be surprises, and no one knows ahead of time exactly what the voice will say.
Pythia: That's a different perspective from anything I've ever read on an American election! So if you had the American electorate -- buffeted by attack ads, talking heads fighting it out in the media, and the tension of political differences between family and friends -- on your couch, what advice would you give to help relieve some of the anxiety around voting?
Stein: I would say it's important to be aware that the decision on Election Day doesn't rest entirely on your shoulders, and to remember that these election results are not the last word -- in four years the people can elect another president, and in two years they can elect another Congress. So it's okay to have anxiety and to put a lot of energy into the candidate that you believe in, but on Election Day lay down your sword and wait and listen and accept the result.
Respect for the voice of the people is essential for this kind of political system to function. This attitude of respect for the transcendent voice of the people is a kind of replica of a theological attitude where you work and pray, but in the final analysis you accept the will of God, no matter what it is. Work as hard as you can, but at the end of the day accept the result that comes from beyond your own personal preference.
I would also say that one may trust that there is a spirit at work behind the scenes of the nation's history. The spirit behind the life of the nation speaks through the voice of the people, so that although the elections may take a turn now and then that looks disastrous at the moment, in the end this guiding spirit will bring things right. It is something you can trust and put your faith in.
Pythia: Would you say there is a spirit of democracy?
Stein: Oh, absolutely. It is the spirit of individual voices sounding loud and free. The American poet Walt Whitman expresses this spirit for us brilliantly in his poetry. The spirit of democracy inhabits America and is well-housed in its mythic narrative. As we go forward into the future, we can build on some of these myths that connect us to our deep history.
Pythia: Can you give me an example of the evolution of a classic American myth, and can you say why it's relevant to the American citizen grappling with "voter anxiety" right now?
Stein: One important image deeply rooted in American myth is the pioneer. At this time of high anxiety, the pioneer image speaks to us of resilience and steadfastness, of vision and risk-taking, and of the call to a new future. Americans may not be pioneers any longer in the literal sense that our forebears were, but the pioneer image can be elaborated in new versions that continue to speak to Americans today and tomorrow. After the storm and following a contentious election, the pioneer spirit in our people would have us shake off the fear, pick up the pieces and go to work fashioning a future better than the past.
So one way for individuals to hold in mind the "bigger picture" around Election Day is to remember the mythic images of our nation's history, and to stay aware that while we each must do our part for our democracy, no one of us is in control of the outcome. We are dependent on the voice of the people as a whole for the outcome, and this voice speaks for a spirit that guides our collective destiny.