The Myth of Blood Libel IV (“Exceptionalism & The Chosen People”)

At the heart of analytical psychology there is an important idea which Mythfire has surprisingly not yet mentioned. Some might consider it analytical psychology’s most central idea: individuation, defined by psychologist Murray Stein as “The process of psychic development that leads to the conscious awareness of wholeness. Not to be confused with individualism.”[1] This basic definition is very much in keeping with the last two entries’ emphasis on becoming conscious of and then working to integrate those shadow elements of ourselves which we otherwise repress, project, and live out in other unconscious and unhealthy ways. Owning and integrating one’s shadow is an unavoidable and continual practice if one is to become a more whole and integral person.

The second half of Stein’s definition is also important and timely considering this series’ identification of the rugged individualist, or cowboy, as perhaps the mythic persona with which not only female politicians but probably most Americans identify.  Individualism has to do with our ego concerns and desires, a sense of self-sufficiency, independence, and individual rights. Individuation, in contrast, is the alignment of oneself with an inner calling or destiny, not born of the ego but of one’s talents, skills, and sense of meaning or purpose.  It is by listening to and laboring to realize this calling that we not only become more individuated, i.e. more fully and wholly ourselves (warts and all), but that we also through our contributions help the world become likewise fuller and more whole, i.e. individuated.

When a person truly begins to align him or herself with this “inner calling” (which is what the word “vocation” means), one invariably feels unique or special, perhaps as if he or she is living in accord with the chosen destiny laid out for him or her by God. Because Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung regularly saw this fateful calling at work in his practice as well as in his own life, he would not have disagreed with this conclusion; however, he used the word “self” instead of “God” in part because the latter means particular things to different faith traditions. Finally, to distinguish the word “self” from any association with personalistic or ego-centric desires and ambitions, analytical psychologists after Jung tend to capitalize it as “Self.” [2]

Just as persona and shadow are psychological realities for collectives as well as individuals, the feeling of being “chosen” is invariably also experienced by groups having a common identity.  Indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of most if not all organized religions. While it is true that these religions generally promise membership in the ranks of “the chosen people” by virtue of belief and/or birth, what many people neglect to appreciate or accept is that these religions did receive some original dispensation via “revelation” from God – in psychological parlance the Self.  This revelation was and is needed in order for us as an imperfect people to become more complete, more whole beings.[3]

We can find the same psychodynamic operating beneath the idea of American “exceptionalism,” which Sarah Palin alluded to twice in her post-Tucson video. As Stanley Fish noted in a piece for New York Times “Exceptionalismcan mean either that America is different in some important respect or that, in its difference, America is superior.” He then writes, “Palin clearly means the latter.” [4]

Mythfire will leave up to readers whether Fish is correct or not in his assessment of Palin.  However, he is correct when he connect’s Palin’s exceptionalism, her feeling of being “chosen” on a national or political level, with religion — a link which is implicit in his article’s title: “Exceptionalism, Faith and Freedom: Palin’s America.”   This link or connection is even more overt when one considers that in calling the United States “our exceptional country, a light to the world” Palin in her video is either consciously or unconsciously quoting Matthew 5:14: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” The step that Mythfire believes Fish stops short of making is the psychological one of explaining why one type of exceptionalism, that of recognizing and valuing religious and cultural differences, is preferable to the other type of exceptionalism proclaiming superiority — which implies superiority over others. (Of course, Fish also does not make any psychological or philosophical assertions – like those above – vis-à-vis the notion that given ideas, in this case the cherished rights of freedom and equality, emerge at a certain time in history because they are needed for the spiritual development of the people concerned.)[5]

In order to be on the lookout for exceptionalism in its undesirable sense of a feeling of inflated superiority, it is important to remember that countries, like individuals, also cast a shadow.  The bigger the light we are to the world, the bigger the shadow as well. When we are so caught up in a sense of chosenness or national pride, of having a divine mission, we are blind not only to our own flaws but also to the harm we’re doing to others at the same time that we’re trying to do “good.” In other words, for other countries our sense of manifest “rightness” or destiny so often is manifested as shadow, a fact unfortunately born out by the historical record. Slavery, disenfranchisement, depletion of natural resources, support for dictatorial regimes, genocide of Native Americans and relegation of the same to reservations, invasion and occupation of other countries, suppression and destruction of other religions — these are but a few examples of exceptionalism’s shadow at work.

The last Mythfire entry noted that it is through an authentic experience of shame and consciousness of failure that we become more aware of and better able to work with our shadow. The aim, on both individual and collective or national levels, is not to move from a feeling of superiority to its opposite, inferiority. The point is to move via a psychological understanding of history (what is sometimes called psycho-history) through shame to humility. Modesty.  It is only from this place of individual and national modesty that the healthy type of exceptionalism can see itself for what it is: one among multiple different and important cultural contributions to this historical global project called Life.[6]

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Note: During the recent protests in both Tunisia and Egypt one of the popular slogans chanted in the streets came from Tunisian poet Abul Qassem Al-Shabi: “If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.” Fate, capitalized as “Providence” in some translations, speaks to the main idea touched on in this post of a people who, sharing a common identity and mission as well as a reciprocal helping relationship with God, bring into consciousness a new and urgently needed ideal. (For more: http://newamericamedia.org/2011/01/egyptian-protesters-say-tunisia-is-the-solution.php).

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Next Monday: The Myth of Blood Libel V (“Sacrifice of Innocence”)


[1] Stein, Murray. Jung’s Map of the Soul: An Introduction. Chicago: Open Court, 1998: 233.

[2] As Daryl Sharp writes, “Individuation is a process of differentiation and integration, the aim being to become conscious of one’s unique psychological make-up. This is quite different from individualism, which is simply me-first and leads inexorably to alienation from others.” See Sharp’s Digesting Jung: Food for the Journey, page 65. Also, in traditional Jungian thinking, individualism with its focus on identity, career, and family,  is the norm as a first-half-of-life activity; individuation is generally pursued with a greater sense of consciousness and urgency in the second half of life as one puts ego-based fears, hopes, and desires aside for a connection to a deeper sense of meaning, purpose, and relatedness to the infinite. See Jung’s Collected Works Vol. 7, par. 266, for Jung’s basic definition of individuation.

[3] Although Mythfire will not go into it here, another central notion to analytical psychology, hard for some readers to accept, is that God or the Self also moves from a less full and whole state of Being to a more individuated one. Furthermore, this individuating of the Self or God occurs with the help of humankind (just as we humans individuate with God’s or the Self’s help).  Jungian Analyst Edward F. Edinger’s The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament discusses what it means psychologically for a people to be “chosen” on pages 116-118.  Also recommended is analyst Rivkah Scharf Kluger’s Psyche in Scripture: The Idea of the Chosen People and Other Essays. As support for the idea that God or the Self needs our help in individuating, both Edinger and Kluger mention several Biblical verses including Isaiah 48:10-11 where God says “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this.” (New International Version). Jung’s Answer to Job wasperhaps the earliest in-depth treatment of this notion of reciprocal help and individuation.

[4] To support his assertion of Palin’s belief in the U.S.’s superiority, Fish includes several quotes presumably from Palin’s recent America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Flag, and Faith. One example of Palin’s “superior” understanding of exceptionalism: “We have a president who believes that America is not the greatest earthly force for good the world has known.” For Fish’s article see: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/exceptionalism-faith-and-freedom-palins-america/.

[5] New International Version, 2010. Also, for more on the relationship between persona and shadow as discussed in the following paragraph, see the earlier Mythfire posts in this series.

[6] In his speech in Tucson Obama called for “a good dose of humility.” Similarly, David Brooks, in his New York Times Op-Ed which started these Mythfire musings on Tucson, argued that civility cannot occur without “modesty.” See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/14/opinion/14brooks.html?_r=2&hp where the word “modesty” appears three times.

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