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Thoughts on the Pandemic

Some friends have asked me to comment on the coronavirus pandemic. It struck them as having something to do with the “Apocalypse”—about which I wrote an earlier Post. There is a connection, but let us acknowledge first of all that the one is a new microscopic organism of nature (a very dangerous one for humans) while the other is an archetypal idea rooted in the psychology of individuals and cultures as far back as we have records.

It is easiest to observe an “Apocalypse” in the psychology of an individual. If someone who is suffering comes to my office and reports dreams of “earthquakes,” or “tsunamis,” or destruction of all kinds—I take those dreams to mean that this person is undergoing a major transformation. This means the “end” of that person’s psychological world in anticipation (if all goes well) of a “new” way of living.

We could call the dreams and the process they signify “Apocalyptic,” from the Greek apokalyptein, “to reveal.” Of course, most people take the word to signify the “End of the World” physically. And the suffering person I have just described will spend a long time trying to convince me that it all has to do with something external or physical—the wife or husband, the boss, or the disability or disease he or she must unfortunately bear. But eventually (if all goes well), this person will learn about the inner life—and begin to cultivate it. That should uncover or reveal a “New World,” psychologically speaking.

As Jung has taught us, the inner life of the psyche has three components. There is (1) the consciousness with which I am writing this and you are reading; (2) the “shadow” level of the unconscious that contains our “sins” or, at least, our weaknesses that we’d rather not acknowledge and certainly don’t want anyone else to see; (3) an even deeper level of the unconscious that Jung called archetypal because its contents are “archaic” and “typical” throughout all of humanity. Significantly, these profound archetypal forces within the deepest layer of the psyche are what we have long called “the gods.” They still exist, still want certain attitudes, behaviors, and achievements from us; and, as we can read in any scripture, still insist upon obedience lest they seek “vengeance” from being ignored.

“Apocalyptic” dreams come from that archetypal unconscious and announce major transformations: a higher degree of consciousness, a more honest admission of one’s faults, a greater effort to fulfill some specific destiny the “gods” have assigned and from which one had best not deviate.

Now, multiply what has just been said by millions, and we arrive at the psychology of a nation. Take America. It has a collective consciousness, thoughts and feelings that we hold in common. For example, we are optimistic (“We’ll get through this pandemic!”). But we have a shadow, one feature being the opposite of optimism. We lack an “imagination for evil.” We just couldn’t imagine the Japanese would cross the Pacific with all those planes in 1941, couldn’t think about the Trade Towers the way the terrorists were able to do in 2001, did not anticipate ISIS, and never thought the coronavirus would “leap” to our shores and cause so much devastation. Thus, we were unprepared.

As for the archetypal depths, America is all “at sea” with no serious spiritual direction. Read Melville’s Moby-Dick again and observe in this modern piece of scripture that the “captain” of our boat is even mad. And read what Edward Edinger has to say about us “archetypally” in An American Jungian. In his book, Archetype of the Apocalypse, Edinger analyzes the biblical “Book of Revelation” as a collective dream to help us understand that the United States (the West? the whole world?) is in the midst of an Apocalypse. Our current way of functioning is coming to a painful End . . . in anticipation (if all goes well) of a Revelation (apokalyptein) of how this nation can be more authentically “the last best hope” of the world.

Does any of this have to do with the pandemic? Yes, indirectly. The unconscious is always projected (see my earlier Post on projection). And to the extent that Americans are unconscious of the profound process of transformation that has gripped us—and with which we need to cooperate—they will project onto any external catastrophe the inner event. But the inner and the outer are not the same thing. Despite all the horrors of the coronavirus disease, we’ll get through this! We’ll get a vaccine eventually, and then we can get back to normal. But the “Apocalypse” will still be with us . . . and the “captain” will still be mad.

There may be a more direct connection between the pandemic and our Apocalypse. Jung noticed something he called “synchronicity.” That is the mysterious but meaningful coincidence of the inner and the outer—e.g., when a psychological “disaster” is accompanied by an external one. If the psychology shifts, however, the external often shifts. So maybe if we “get it right,” we won’t have to experience too many more pandemics. After all, outer problems are often a “god-send,” a stimulus to cultivate the inner life.

Let us ponder some psychology suggested by this new problem. The coronavirus jumped from some wild animal species to humans in part because the earth has too many people—with the boundary between wilderness and civilization narrowing. We would need a sharper consciousness of the danger of overpopulation to do anything about it. The elderly are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus. Since I am among that vulnerable group, I wonder if Nature is “culling the herd.” It’s a gruesome thought, but it is true that we do not know what to do with so many seniors—and worse, they don’t know what to do with themselves. I’ve decided to try to get wiser as I get older. Many have commented on the introversion of being ordered to “stay at home” during the pandemic. But why be ordered? Why not intend to balance America’s natural extraversion with Emerson’s “American” brand of the introverted life—that would require many quiet hours with “Self-Reliance” and “The Over-Soul.”

That might even lead to some reading of Jung—and not just reading but studying—making an effort to become wiser. Of course, that wisdom will include acknowledgment of one’s “shadow” side. But doing so—i.e., making it “stay at home”—means one is no longer projecting it, no longer “infecting” the world with the “virus” of one’s own stupidities. In that tiny, invisible—but real—way, the world actually improves. “And there shall be a New Heaven and a New Earth.”

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