Goodbye To The Great Man

Since archetypes play on our fears and fantasies, they are bad companions for practical work like governing, which requires a different level of imagination.
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Living in a democracy with a long history of rising up against tyranny, monarchy, and other concentrations of power, it's hard to admit when we fall into old errors.

Living in a society that values education, critical thinking, and reasoned decision-making, we find it difficult to believe that emotional stress can temporarily impair our capacity to think clearly.

But we do fall into error, and we do "lose it" when we're under stress. A crisis can generate that terrible combination of fear and hope-against-hope: fear for our own survival, and hope for rescue in the form of the most powerful figure we can imagine -- superman, or at least the Great Man.

The key word is imagine. The Great Man is not a living person, though his image may be based on memories of fathers or grandfathers, Abraham Lincolns or Julius Caesars. Often he is a projection into fiction, like Superman or Skywalker. We all have some relation to this archetype, as it is deeply embedded in our religious and cultural traditions as well as our early childhood experiences. We all can be swept away, at least for a time, by its fascinating power.

In crisis the Great Man awakens. Eight years ago, reeling from the shock of a financial debacle, we elected a candidate who campaigned not only on a rational-liberal platform but also on Hope itself. For many, he was the culmination, if not the incarnation, of decades of longing for Justice and Equality, an opportunity for the forces of goodness to right ancient wrongs. Certainly every voter made rational calculations along the way, but the drive for a promise larger-than-life was also part of the dynamic.

Once in office, President Obama tried to dampen the charisma effect, as he recognized its dangers. But the imagination will not be so easily seduced by rationality. His opponents unwittingly fell into the dynamic, recognizing his mysterious Greatness by labeling him as alien -- born somewhere else, maybe Krypton -- and insisting that all his ideas were dangerous. STOP HIM! was the watchword, as if he were a monster in a horror movie. The scene was set.

In the realm of archetypal psychology, the next movement could have been predicted: an inflation of fantasy in the form of a battle between good and evil. On one side there emerged another Great Man -- at first announced as an outsider (wait -- wasn't that what Obama was?) but also self-proclaimed as a self-made success. In this version of the battle, goodness was proven by Greatness, and greatness was demonstrated by money and force -- especially verbal violence like name-calling, false accusations, and bullying, while stoking the flames of anxiety with images of disability, weakness, humiliation, and financial ruin. With the slogan "Believe me!" he knocked off 16 opponents, a feat like "seven in one blow" from fairy tales, which in turn became evidence of greatness. The fear-mongering worked, too -- either you feared what he told you to fear, or you feared him, thus driving us all into constant alert, glued to the news, awaiting the next disaster or exaltation as if our lives depended on it.

On the other side was a personage who could not fulfill the Great Man image by definition. Thus, despite immense qualifications for a highly demanding real job, she could not magnetize the archetypal energy in many people. Neither Maiden, Courtesan nor Crone, she had to appeal to rationality and a work ethic. Yet she was portrayed by her opponents as witchlike -- mistress of darkness, hiddenness, secrecy, and shady deals -- even while the Great Man was being brought to court for actual shady deals, false promises, and secret liaisons. Talk about projection!

Our inspirational ideals and much of our emotional energy are rooted in archetypal images like the Great Man. Yet, since archetypes play on our fears and fantasies, they are bad companions for practical work like governing, which requires a different level of imagination. To have a society, we must imagine a future, to be sure, but then we must interact with real people in speaking and listening, argument and accord, and then gather the resources we need to build the future. Investing in that endeavor enables a healthy imagination to flourish.

The election will soon be over. It's time to say goodbye to the Great Man, the demons his image generated, and the fears that divided and exhausted us.

Practical action matters now: Be sure to vote.

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