It is inadvisable to comment psychologically on a tragedy when it is still fresh, better to let it sink in first. But this one hit close to home. Some of what I have written in “Thoughts on Charlottesville” and “Thoughts on Las Vegas” is actually relevant again. (How often will I be using that title pattern?) Let me add that I am not trying to say something definitive in any of these posts—since there is much being expressed in our culture that is informative and helpful—only something a bit different from a Jungian point of view. I am trying to demonstrate its usefulness.
The day after an outraged and resentful young man killed fourteen students and three adults at the high school from which he had been expelled, the carpenter who was working at my house told me he lived near Parkland. He also said his brother owned an AR-15 and proudly exhibited it to friends and family. He had once challenged his brother—“Why do you have that?”—but had received no adequate explanation. He showed me a picture on his phone of this man with other men (including the carpenter!) brandishing assault rifles with big smiles. They looked like “big shots.” They also looked like terrorists, only dressed differently.
My very able computer man called and said he would not be coming by since he was spending all his time trying to find out what happened at the Parkland high school—from which he was graduated. He was trying to reach old friends who had their own children at the school and was very troubled by it all. I have not heard from him for several days.
A colleague of my wife did not come to work the day after the attack in order to care for her nine-year-old daughter. The child’s school was near the one assaulted and had been put in “lock down.” She thought her own school was under attack and was unable to stop crying.
A month ago, I had not heard of Parkland. But the town sits on the edge of the Everglades National Park, and we took visiting friends there for an airboat ride into the “river of grass.” The swamp grass actually moved up and down with our wake as the landscape of varied greens and yellows went on forever. Exotic birds were startled by our noise while alligators just kept sunning on top of the muck. Everyone seemed particularly interested in the alligators, and the captain of our airboat kept finding them for us. What primordial creatures! What present-day reminders of prehistoric life!
Our fascination, however, was more than zoological. We were unconsciously fascinated by the fact that a “prehistoric psyche” lies deep within each of us still. There is a “swamp” within, and primordial energies or “alligators” are living there. Usually, they don’t bother us since there is a kind of barrier between the uncivilized and more civilized layers of the psyche. The barrier is more like a “permeable membrane,” however, lest the psyche be split, lest the Life Energy of the depths be unavailable to us. Our more civilized consciousness mediates that energy, transforms its raw nature to help us live effectively and to sustain culture. That is our “responsibility.”
But on February 14th, an “Alligator” suddenly burst through the “permeable membrane” in a young murderer. He became possessed, all Swamp, and he did what the cold-blooded Alligator made him do. Perhaps, he has said to his lawyer, “I don’t know what got into me.” We know, however, or at least have a pretty good idea—given Jung’s insight into what actually makes up a human being, and not just what we wish were true. About ourselves. About murderers. About the fragility of our capacity to be “responsible.”
So what happened? The youth of the perpetrator was a factor since that meant his mediating consciousness (i.e., his ego) was not very solid in the first place (although an adult ego can be weakened as well). His ongoing resentment about his life, his feeling that he was being cheated, the fact that no one seemed to care (true or not) had been slowly wearing a hole in the barrier between the primordial unconscious and his consciousness until it broke. And the student expelled for bad behavior “got even.” In a primitive indiscriminate act, he got even with kids he didn’t even know, who had never belittled him—and before whom he did not have to prove he was a “big shot.” Notice that the ego can take only so much perceived humiliation. Socially, group humiliation is a very big issue, and everything possible should be done to alleviate it.
Unfortunately, the problem is not just personal or social. It is transpersonal or “Primordial” like a swamp. I call as witness Blake’s image of “God” pointing out to Job—who was suffering a terribly unfair fate—his prize creatures, “Behemoth and Leviathan.” As both Jung and Edinger suggest, Yahweh-God is also pointing out: “Look, that is what I am like!” And Leviathan looks like an Alligator. Of course, we should discuss gun control and mental health—and maybe something will change there—but will we discuss the much deeper issue of the nature of God? Or what a “God” must be psychologically now that we know he is not in the sky? Or will we just continue to exclaim, “Oh, God!” every time something awful happens and then offer “our thoughts and prayers,” whatever that means, as the victims pile up?
Yes, I am touching upon the profounder dimensions of Jungian psychology that are difficult to grasp. But in doing so, I—and, indirectly, the reader of this essay—am doing the Unconscious the honor of acknowledging its existence. We are acknowledging its Nature that is both life-giving and life-taking (Job 1:21). And it seems to be a fact that the unconscious changes, even for the better, the more we are aware of it. Edward Edinger said in an interview:
the rule of thumb that Jung has taught us is that the unconscious takes the same attitude toward the ego as the ego takes toward it. That’s one aspect of how the unconscious changes when the ego pays attention to it. But the unconscious also changes when the ego has seen with its own “eyes” the raw view of the primordial psyche. Believe me, it’s a terrible thing to see. There is an image of that in the Blake series on “Job” where Yahweh is showing Job his “back side”—the terrible monsters, Behemoth and Leviathan. It’s an image of getting a glimpse of what the primordial psyche looks like, what God’s “back side” is, you see. And when one has that view—not just hearsay knowledge—when one sees it in shuddering knee-knocking reality, that changes the nature of the primordial psyche. (An American Jungian, 73).
Let us dare to look deeply into what happened at Parkland on the edge of the Everglades. It may make the Primordial psyche ever so slightly more “human.”
WANT MORE? Read C. G. Jung, “Answer to Job” in the Collective Works, vol. 11. Read the following by Edward F. Edinger: 1) An American Jungian (2009); Transformation of the God-Image: An elucidation of Jung’s “Answer to Job” (1992); 3) Encounter with the Self: A Jungian Commentary on William Blake’s “Illustrations of the Book of Job” (1986).