Searching For Meaning In These Tumultuous Times

Dalai Lama and Carl Jung Shed Light On Coping and Understanding the Other Side

“There must be some kind a way out of here,” said the Joker to the Thief, “there’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.” Bob Dylan

Do you have days like I do, when you turn on the television or read an online publication, a blog, or a Facebook post, and the world feels completely out of kilter – like an impending natural or man-made disaster is on the horizon and that as a nation we’re about to implode?

Too often I feel bombarded by the opposing and extreme voices and rhetoric pervading partisan politics and forced to endure continuous, bizarre government double speak on just about every topic. Of course there’s nothing really new with government’s obfuscation of facts, (or the media’s biases in interpreting them) but to me, it’s much more intense and glaring these days. With scorched earth politics leaving few on the sidelines, the climate of distrust is taking its toll on our collective psyche no matter which political “side” you’re on.

For me, further distressing in the current climate of contentious viewpoints is that I have family, neighbors and friends who I grew up with who have taken up the defense of the “other side” – the one I don’t philosophically agree with. So how do I handle this? Do I dissociate from them or clam up in their presence? These are people I love: among them my childhood neighbor and best friend, who is now a surgeon in Florida; another long-time friend of 50 years, who went from being my camping and boy scout buddy to being my accountant and business adviser for decades and remains so to this day; and then there’s my favorite fishing buddy, who is retired from the Air Force and now a prison guard. Add to that mix of people whom I enjoy and are endeared to me yet another group: cousins and in-laws. If I want to maintain my relationships with them, I am forced to accept the fact that they hold different positions and convictions and see a different reality than I do.

So how am I – how are we – to cope with it all? It’s been a struggle for me lately and I’ve been searching for answers amid this mess of high emotions and polar-opposite opinions. But I’m not alone: it seems everyone’s got an answer these days or is developing a theory or strategy on coping, if they haven’t got one already. While I’m working on mine (which I’ll share with you shortly), I’m finding it instructive and sometimes entertaining to see how others suggest we deal with our latest national malaise.

One of my favorite quasi-solutions comes from a scholar who runs a conservative think tank In Washington. In a column in the New York Times he explained that people who pay close attention to politics might also have some latent source of unhappiness – and that they should consider tuning out more and even “letting go” like the Hindu guru in the parable he recounts in his essay. He suggests that if you stop obsessively checking the latest news on Twitter, CNN and Facebook you’ll be happier.

Well, perhaps that method of escape works for him, but I can tell you it didn’t do much for New York Times readers except raise their ire. He was overwhelmingly castigated in the comments section with comments like: “What insufferable nonsense… Let’s pretend that this was written in the 1930s Germany or Stalinist Russia or any number other authoritarian regimes.” And “we should be alarmed and outraged instead of meekly or selfishly focusing on our individual happiness….” By far, the vast majority told the author in essence that “letting go” is abdicating the duties of responsible citizenship and that for a scholar he basically had his head stuck in the sand or up a part of his anatomy. However, maybe escapism into an inner realm is appropriate for some.

So there must be other ways to cope. Let’s say you choose not to go the “cop out into happiness” route – that you’re dedicated to stay in the thick of things, because you can’t help yourself for curiosity sake or because you’ve become fixated on the news and what’s happening in the country and need to regularly check in to see if the any institutions of government have been abolished or undermined within oh, let’s say, the past hour. Or, maybe just as likely, you feel a deep need to know what the latest craziest proclamation is coming out of the nation’s capital today. So you check your news sources and social media, which give you the affirmations you need, since everyone is agreeing with you.

Yes, everyone in your universe agrees with your position entirely – that revolution and righteous rebellion from YOUR side will help solve the problem. In other words, your bubble is happily encasing you – coddling you. So temporary relief is had until the panic once again sets in.

Think about that for a minute, if you are only absorbing information and opinions from your side. Are you really learning anything when you see only your sympathizers weighing in, and confirming your bias, your truth, your reality? There’s another side of the equation that you’re missing entirely and in doing so, maybe missing an opportunity to better understand what actually is going on in America.

And so you may have been waiting for the punch line to see what side I am on – or at least if I am critical of the president and his supporters, but that’s not where I’m headed right now with this essay. But for the record, while I was prepared to give the new president a chance, I am regularly appalled by his behavior – to me both vain and reckless, and less-than-becoming of the office he holds. And when the behaviors of a politician are questionable and important policies and legislation are not given the attention or weight of seriousness they deserve, we all suffer as a nation.

Now, back to the dilemma of coping. Like many of my fellow citizens on both sides of the aisle, as I struggle to sort through it all, I’ve wondered at the rationale behind the extreme positions that have given us this wildly polarized country. I’ve been turning this over in my mind – wanting to better understand what’s happening to us as a country. Why does the other side think the way they do? Other times I wonder: does understanding each other matter that much? Can we simply “agree to disagree” to somehow save our relationships and perhaps find a common ground, an understanding, an equilibrium? I’ve come to believe there’s something to be gained by understanding who we are collectively as Americans, because we are after all one country, and in our democracy we are defined, in part, by who we’ve elected to be our representatives and leaders. Like it or not, we are both sides of this coin now.

Chris Hayes, the MSNBC liberal commentator, while being interviewed by another MSNBC liberal show host Rachel Maddow recently said, “Let’s face it, there’s a Donald Trump in all of us.” Rachel’s jaw just about dropped until Hayes elaborated. “There’s an appeal to the idea of order, particularly if you’re experiencing a decline, an unraveling; there’s an idea that we can contain it, keep it over there… we can send in the guard, and you are going to be secure and you are going to be OK. The appeal of that kind of order is very subtle, very seductive, and it’s very powerful and very universal… So, [we should understand] the deeper truth, the emotional truth about how we, as political actors, respond to these appeals and recognize the way they speak to us – and work to take that reaction and interrogate it.”

That commentary provided a thoughtful defense of one aspect of Trump’s appeal, especially coming from the left. But lest I just look to the voices of MSNBC solely for objectivity and enlightenment, my first serious departure and step in the discovery process has been to take a break from my regular routines. Not in the manner of letting go like the Hindu guru, but I took a deliberate hiatus from Facebook for a few weeks and in the true spirit of bursting my bubble even further, I started to watch a number of Fox News programs.

However when you are in a sincere search for the keys to unraveling this mystery of who we’ve become – while shaping a new view of ourselves as individuals, as a culture and country – there’s no easy way through it. So this essay has less to do with considering the differences in our politics, but rather how we might actually share some common world views. Certainly at the top of the list is profound distrust of the ruling, political class. Like so many Libertarians, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, I came to view the system as one that was bought and sold by special interests and those influence peddlers who could afford to pay for access to the politicians, who in turn would reciprocate by performing favors, and passing legislation benefiting the highest bidders. And yes, I believe that resulted in severe economic stratification, and thus the creation of huge income inequalities.

That general sentiment is what gave us Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in this election cycle. And it’s certainly what got Donald Trump elected. Millions upon millions of voters held the Washington, and the political class they’ve come to know, in utter contempt – enough so that they willingly voted for two outsiders who said they would turn the system on end and bring revolution to Washington. But now as a result of the electorate’s expression of anger and rebellion, and the choice of the populist maverick outsider with no political experience, we’re in a place we’ve never been before in our modern history. Add to all of that the meddling of a foreign government in our election process and it’s easy to see why we’re a country engulfed in chaos, confusion and a unique kind of craziness.

So it doesn’t appear a great mystery as to why or how we got here, but now, how do you come to terms with really understanding why your neighbor or family member (that person you know and liked before the election) remains on the other side, and handling that psychologically and intellectually?

There are those that don’t want to go deep on this. And that’s on both sides. I imagine that on the “I’m still-in with-Trump-no-matter what” side, Fox News may still provide a touchstone – although these days even Fox is treading carefully and seems to be making subtle departures from its completely partisan coverage. But then there are the president’s tweets, which speak directly to his base, right along side the Alt-right media, always present to feed the beast. And on the left, many gravitate to the most common and reliable watchdog groups and media that monitor and report and assure everyone that the good fight is being fought, and ‘if we persist, we will prevail and defeat the evil forces that have taken over the levers of government.”

While both sides have their own stalwarts and communities – always there to comfort and provide camaraderie – there are obvious signs that another large cohort of Americans are finding other means of coming to terms with this new world. Of note is the retreat many are making to literature – from classic dystopian novels like George Orwell’s 1984 to contemporary non fiction like Hillbilly Elegy – both lately appearing on the New York Times best seller lists. I’ve read both and yes, I did glean some renewed perspective. Still others among us look to philosophers, poets, scholars, statesman and historians to shed insights.

In times of great confusion such as these in my life, I turn to writers and scholars, often grabbing random books off the shelves in my home or in the public library or getting referrals or loans from my friends.

My attempt to come to terms with the turmoil in the times of Trump, began in earnest and was inspired by a conversation with a dear friend who tragically lost her three children in a fire years ago. She is a wise woman, very educated and spiritual and through her journey of coping with loss and life-long learning, has struggled to make sense of the world. She made a very simple comment to me: “When we elect a person like we just have, we have to look inside ourselves.” There is something to be learned from this, if we can explore a deeper consciousness, she suggested. Elaborating she said: “Something good will come of this, and I don’t’ necessarily mean politically. Granted it’s an extreme, but it will force us to embrace and evaluate our convictions.” Then she also gave me a book as a gift: The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. The amazing book is full of conversations between Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In the book the Dalai Lama speaks to the human condition and quotes the Buddha: “With our mind we create our own world.” Granted, but he evolves this discussion into the importance of having a wider perspective. He talks about the great calamity of losing his country, and viewing his last half century in exile as something to be “reframed more positively.”

“So therefore if you look from one angle you feel, Oh how bad, how sad. But if you look from another angle at that same tragedy, that same event, you see that it gives me new opportunities. For every event in life, there are many different angles. When you look at the same event from a wider perspective, your sense of worry and anxiety reduces and you have greater joy.”

I like what the Dalai Lama has to say, and of course each individual will react differently and benefit or not by “reframing.“ But I found additional insight into just that idea: that finding perspective as individuals, in relation to the masses, is what matters here.

For further enlightenment on that concept of the individual vs. the masses I turned to one of world’s most prominent and influential thinkers of the 20th century, Swiss psychologist and doctor, Carl Jung. He remains one of my touchstones. He wrote extensively on the human psyche and human condition and is famous for his work and study on the subconscious and how it plays such a powerful role in all our lives, and for his theories on the self and ego and the soul. In his book The Undiscovered Self, he wrote about the plight of civilization and the individual’s struggle for moral and spiritual integrity against the “mass psychology” generated by political fanaticism, scientific materialism and technological triumphalism on a global scale.

Writing in 1957, Jung is very concerned with the Cold War, the spreading of Communism and the threat of nuclear disaster. However, his points seem just as relevant in 2017. He is alarmed about “mass-mindedness” – the reduction of individuals to anonymous, like-thinking units of humanity, to be manipulated by propaganda and advertising into fulfilling whatever function is required of them by those in power.

Jung says that resisting this mass mentality can only be done effectively by the person who understands his own individuality. He advocates a return to the “helpful medieval view that man is a microcosm, a reflection of the great cosmos in miniature.” We have to get ourselves in order before we can get the rest of the world in order. None of us stands outside humanity’s black collective shadow. In his words:

“All the same, nobody can deny that without the psyche there would be no world at all, and still less, a human world. Virtually everything depends on the human soul and its functions. It should be worthy of all the attention we can give it, especially today, when everyone admits that the weal or woe of the future will be decided neither by the attacks of wild animals nor by natural catastrophes, nor by the danger of world-wide epidemics but simply and solely by the psychic changes in man. It needs only an almost imperceptible disturbance or equilibrium in a few of our rulers’ heads to plunge the world into blood, fire and radioactivity. The technical means necessary for this are present on both sides. And certain conscious deliberations, uncontrolled by any inner opponent, can be indulged in all too easily, as we have seen already from the example of one ‘Leader.’"

Take that in for a minute…. Jung is saying that what we have to fear most are the psychic changes in man and that only a little disturbance in our rulers’ heads can plunge the world into chaos. He wrote that when the US and the Soviet Russia were in the midst of the Cold War, and the world was being threatened by the forces associated with Communism.

Now, today, we can see all too clearly the daily evidence of a new "leader" not even remotely aware of the concept of searching one's soul or of coming to terms with his inner being. But here’s the twist: Jung talks about such a figurehead representing the shadow and allowing us to feel that we are on the side of good “and enjoy the possession of the right ideal.” “The existence of a dictator allows us to point a finger away from ourselves and at the shadow," he says.

This leads me to believe that this new would-be autocrat is providing nourishment to both factions. He represents our ego and our shadow and the worst in us. Perhaps then there’s something at play in our psyche that could lead to a rebirth of consciousness among a wider collective of people. There are signs of a growing awareness, especially when the liberal left or conservative right begins to express empathy with the “other side” – such as Chris Hayes’ comment about “there being a bit of Donald Trump in all of us,” or when Republican Congressmen or Senators openly oppose their party’s leadership and when we see both sides of the media – both Fox News and NBC News reporters – calling out the White House on false statements and lies and correcting it all for the record.

Back to Jung on exploring and coming to terms to our human condition. He noted that: “The consciousness of modern man still clings so much to outward objects that he makes them exclusively responsible, as if it were on them that the decision depended."

After mulling this over for weeks, I’ve come to view this exercise as a more than worthwhile endeavor. A way for me to cope. And the results I am starting to see portend a widening consciousness. A good omen perhaps – a sign that all is not lost in the fight for freedoms and for truth in this great crazy country of ours. But it starts at an individual and personal level – with understanding ourselves before we can influence those in our spheres and make a difference amongst friends, family and at a community level. Searching our own souls, and trying to look at the situation from another vantage point and reframing it for ourselves, it would seem, opens a window into the soul of our nation. And I venture that it’s worth it in order to save both.