Category Archives: group psychology

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

“The Moon is Made Out of Cheese”

The following is a facetious reverie I utilize socially on occasion to illustrate the lunacy that we all wallow in occasionally.  Bear with me.  There is a point to it.

Wow, I woke up this morning and I suddenly realized that the moon is made out of cheese!  Furthermore, I knew that this insight was profound and relevant to the entire world so I immediately began to formulate a plan whereby I could spread this very important insight.

I started by canvassing my neighborhood and though many refused to open the door, some laughed at me, there were a handful of people who, knowing how special and gifted I was to begin with, immediately said, “Hey, you have a point there!  I’ve always had thoughts like that myself but didn’t have the courage to speak of them.”

So we began to meet regularly and started each meeting with an assessment of those in the neighborhood who had not “seen the light” and had so rudely refused the good news that we had brought.  We took great comfort in the realization that most people cannot handle the truth, stubbornly keep their minds and hearts in the darkness, and refuse to allow enlightenment to enter.  Often, as these meetings ended, we would be in tears as we lamented the fate of those who had stubbornly refused to acknowledge the truth that we offered.

I must make a long story short and summarize.  This initial group did grow and at some point our initial band of seven faithful souls expanded to twenty-three.  We formally organized and, of course, since I was the source of this inspiration I announced that I was the leader of the group…and also the treasurer…and that I was the final authority on some of the fine points about the moon being made out of cheese.

At this point, trouble started.  One gentleman brought up the question, “Well, what kind of cheese is it?”  I was a bit taken aback as I knew without a doubt that it was American cheese but another dared to suggest, “No, it is cheddar.”  Still another affirmed that it was American cheese but argued that it was Velveeta.  It took a lot of argument, and at times intense anger, but I managed to convince the second gentleman that the Velveeta notion was heresy and he agreed with me.  But the cheddar proponent was adamant about his viewpoint, and convinced three others he was right, and they separated from our group and focused on developing a belief system around the moon being made out of cheddar cheese.

My point here with this lunacy is, once again, “Don’t believe everything you think.”  Those who do, lacking the capacity to think critically, are subject to easily being influenced by a seductive and/or intimidating person.  Whatever our “pet” thoughts are, it does not hurt in the least to subject them to a bit of critical thinking.  I like T.S. Eliot’s observation on this note, encouraging us to, “live in the breakage, in the collapse of what was believed in as most certain and therefore the fittest for renunciation.”  “Pet” thoughts that have value can withstand this type of scrutiny and even flourish as a result.  This makes me think of something I read decades ago about how to make a poem, “Grab a word and pull on it.”  Grabbing a word or a thought and “pulling on it” with critical thinking can help ferret out the value…if any…if the thinking.  The less value in the vein of thought that grips one’s soul, the less likelihood that any critical thinking will be brought to bear upon it.

Each of us have passing thoughts.  That is good.  But we can be selective about which one’s we give any energy to and if it is something that tends to promote isolation, we might take pause.  We might ask, “Do I really believe this?”

Trump and the ‘Thing-ification’ of Faith

The evangelical support for Donald Trump reflects how greatly imperiled the Christian tradition is in.  True, evangelicals are only a portion of Christianity but most of the Christian tradition is based on rationality to the exclusion of experience which makes it more amenable to being a cultural artifact. When religion becomes a cultural artifact, it risks becoming what the Apostle Paul called “the wisdom of this world” to which he assigned the value of “sounding brass and tinkling symbols” or as comedian Jerry Seinfeld put it, “yada, yada, yada.”

One’s Christian faith can easily become a “thing” which facilitates the phenomenon known as the “Christian identity movement” in which one’s faith has become “thing-ified.” It reflects that the individual has succumbed to the influence of modern industrial civilization and learned to see and experience himself only as a “thing” and therefore his god…and god’s son…can only be a “thing.”   Furthermore, one’s loved ones, one’s friends, even mother earth is only a “thing” and we all know that “things” are to be used, to be exploited without any concern for their separateness, for their own uniqueness and value, even for their own soul.

A good friend of mine recently shared with me his experience of realizing his own “thing-ification” in the whole of his life, especially with his faith.  He was indoctrinated into the Christian tradition at an early age, pressured at an early age to become a minister, and his faith…as a “thing”…became his identity.  He began to realize in his late teens that something was amiss, and began a decades long exploration of an emptiness in his soul that an addiction to this “thing-ification” had covered up.  As he gradually began to find the courage to let this “thing” dissipate, the emptiness began to be more intense, and as the intensity increased he began to find a grounding which he realized was faith in a more genuine sense that he had ever imagined possible.  He summed it up as, “I had to lose myself to find myself”.  He further explained that he realized he had to, in an important sense, lose his faith to find his faith and this experience was very much related to finding faith in himself.  “To believe in God is to believe in myself,” he summarized.

Christian tradition has become such a “tradition” that it is often nothing but sterile tradition, a medley of ideas devoid of any connection to human experience, i.e. “the body.”  I call these Christians “Christian-oids” or “Christian-ettes” who each day more or less say, “Wind me up and watch me be Christian.   This way of life is a habit, and a comfortable habit, so comfortable that it is hard to break.  It is very painful to realize that giving up this “habit” is giving up the “letter of the law” in exchange for the “Spirit of the Law,” giving up “death” for “Life.”  And a noble tradition that has become perfunctory is amenable to gross influence by unconscious forces allowing innocent and good intelligent people to find themselves enthralled by ideologies which are actually very dark.  Shakespeare recognized that when any spiritual tradition becomes perfunctory like this, when it becomes an “enforced ceremony” it becomes deadly:

When love begins to sicken and decay,
It useth an enforcèd ceremony.
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

When faith that was once heart-based, has “sickened and decayed” into empty rhetoric and ritual, there will be lots of loud and boisterous postering which will provide much fodder for late night comedians but will do nothing to assuage the ills of the social body or of the individual souls.

I dare to say that we have today a perfunctory Christian tradition very often and thus we see so many of them lining up behind a craven figure like Donald Trump and even declaring that God has “raised him up” to be President of the United States.  This trivialization of the Christian tradition has led to a banalization of faith so that “easy believism” has replaced the “costly Grace” spoken of by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Consequently one can readily subscribe to a rationale creed, don the “Christian” attire, and bask in the social comfort that it affords  without ever allowing it to delve into the heart and there, according to the Apostle Paul, “be a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”

 

 

 

 

When love begins to sicken and decay,
It useth an enforcèd ceremony.
There are no tricks in plain and simple faith.
But hollow men, like horses hot at hand,
Make gallant show and promise of their mettle.

Thoughts about the Election 2016

This election yesterday which will bring Donald Trump to the Presidency of my country in January has taught me so much, not just about my country but about myself.  This is because I now pay attention much better, not only to what happens “out there” in my world but what happens “in here” in my subjective experience.  No longer do I have the luxury of merely coasting by on my convenient set of preconceptions.

The American people have clearly voted for a more conservative direction in our country, politically and culturally.  Their insistence on a return to conservative values was so emphatic that they were even willing to vote for a candidate that most of them did not like, many of whom even found it embarrassing to vote for him.  And I feel passionately that a conservative presence in any culture is needed; but it is sad that the Republican Party could not come up with a candidate who represented their values and didn’t bring Trump’s unsavory qualities to the table.

Furthermore, this election was an affirmation about a certain way of looking at the world, a worldview with very certain and rigid boundaries best illustrated with Trump’s brazen declaration to “build a wall” to keep out the Mexicans and even to make Mexico pay for it.  This “building of walls” is a metaphor for the whole emphasis of the Trumpian message to “Make American Great Again,” meaning to turn back the clock to the time when boundaries were very definite and “everybody” knew their place.  Yes, “Negroes”, women, homosexuals, foreigners of all stripes, and all expressions of diversity were frowned upon or persecuted.

When the basic assumptions that formulate the template through which we view the world are threatened, it is a very human response to want to revert to what has worked in the past to diminish or eliminate this threat.  This is true on an individual and a collective level.  But sometimes this need for the security of the “tried and true” of yesteryear can become too great and we will succumb to the temptation of making,  “for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”  (W. H. Auden)  Life is inherently dynamic and with the dynamic flow of this spiritual process there is always some risk involved.  Without willingness to take risks, to change, we have retreated to a sterile and moribund world which leaves us bereft of spirit, existing only as the walking dead.

Donald Trump and his Shame-Based Psyche

If we don’t know already enough about the character of Donald Trump, we now have another glimpse into the dark recesses of his heart with a new book, “The Truth about Trump” by Michael D’Antonio.  The author uses Trump’s own words from an interview two years ago to show us just how extensive is the shame-base that governs this man who could soon be the next President of the United States.  This shame-base is so deep-seated and pervasive that he cannot acknowledge any wrong or having lost in anything.  It boils down to an inability to admit, “I am wrong” about even the simplest matter.  Often when it would have been politically prudent to have acknowledged that “I misspoke” or “I now regret having said that” or some other euphemistic say of acknowledging he had made a mistake, he will merely double-down on the matter.  At times it has been comical.

 

All of us have a shame base and it serves a purpose, forcing us to “join the human race” and play by its rules…more or less…even when at times these rules seem to be more than we can bear.  But if we cannot play by the rules we will be an “out-lier” and possibly become the bully on the playground who fails to regard common civilities and perfunctory kindnesses necessary to “join in the reindeer games,”  those from which Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer was excluded. The playground bully is comfortable with the disruptive influence he has on the play-ground, and even thrives on it in some perverted manner.  Those that carry this impudence to an extreme and cross a certain boundary at some point will end up in the principal’s office and face frequent suspension from school.  For the “play-ground” must have rules as otherwise the “civilization” that it represents will disintegrate into complete chaos.

 

In any ordinary “play-ground” Trump would have already been suspended or institutionalized in one of the facilities at which I used to practice counseling for incorrigible teen-age offenders.  But Trump stumbled onto a “playground” that was amenable to his excesses, allowing him to reach a point at which he could not be stopped.  Oh, sure now his Republican Party is greatly troubled by his presence and by his power but most of them still will not acknowledge that they created an atmosphere in their Party the past few decades that would permit him to climb to power by fostering a culture of dishonesty and hypocrisy which would make someone like Trump viable.  If they’d have maintained some basic sense of moral and spiritual integrity, the resulting structure, i.e “boundaries”, would have made it impossible for demagoguery to gain traction.  To illustrate, for the past eight years of the Obama presidency they have been passive in response to members of its constituency that insinuated and declared that Obama was not an actual citizen of the United States, was actually a Muslim,.  Often I watched the GOP leadership sidestep opportunities to quash this type of non-sense but they would always equivocate on the matter, not wanting to alienate their base who thrives on hysterical non-sense.

But my main concern today is, “Why do intelligent citizens continue to support him when reports such as the D’Antonio book clearly reveal that Trump is mentally unstable?”  And furthermore just yesterday a Conservative firebrand, Glenn Beck, described Trump as a “psychopath” about whom he was frightened.  Trump’s instability is so egregious that it is commonly accepted but many conservatives sheeplishly declare they are standing firm in support of him, lest Hillary Clinton be elected..  So, where is reason in my country today?  Have we lost our mind?  Are we crazy?

Well, no.  The problem is that “reason” is not the guiding force in our lives and never has been.  Our reason is but the surface dimension of life and is always subservient to subterranean dimensions of the heart that we do not wish to acknowledge.  As Woody Allen once said about marrying his step-daughter, “The heart wants what it wants.”  Or as someone else once put it, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we have already been led by our desires.”  To put it still another way, our reasoning which purportedly governs our life is always governed by the unconscious.  But for many people the notion of being influenced by unconscious motivations jeopardizes their ego-driven belief that they are totally in control of their lives,  that they “know” what they are doing, and are “right” about what they are doing and believing.  To recognize this hidden dimension of their heart would jeopardize their illusion of being in control.  And control is the core issue in this political campaign.  It is a battle between people who are firmly entrenched in a now-threatened view of the world that we are in control of our lives and those of us that have imbibed of what I think can best be described as post-modern thought.  This modern view of the world recognizes that we only have a perspective on the world and do not see things objectively, making it necessary to lighten-up a bit with our view of the world and allow more diversity that we used to think was necessary or even possible.

And this, my friend, is scary!  What makes it so frightening is that the ego can no longer reign in our hearts and lives, forcing us to humble ourselves a bit and see, understand, and experience that our view of the world is very finite and given to being very self-serving.  By nature we see and believe only what we want to see and believe.  Or, in the famous words of Jesus, we “have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not.”

NYT book review of D’Antonio book:   (See NYT review of the D’Antonio book–http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/26/us/politics/donald-trump-interviews.html?_r=0)

Donald Trump Flirts with Humility

“Humility comes hard to the humble.”  I’ve said this many times, bringing attention to a lesson I’ve learned that when one is steeped in a culturally tradition of being “humble” it is very hard for any real humility to sneak through.  And when it does begin to penetrate that hard shell of self-righteousness, it is almost always quite painful.  I’ve given up on that and the rest of Christian virtue, coming to believe that the best I can hope for is that something I call “humility-ization” is underway in my life and will periodically have my arrogance brought fully to my attention.  And this itself does not make me humble!  It just makes me aware that there is something other than I am aware of that is present in my life, some indescribable and ultimately Ineffable mystery that is unfolding in my life…and the whole of life…and occasionally it subjects me to a rebuff.

Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican Party nomination for the President in 2016, is the perfect embodiment of narcissism and egotism that I have ever seen in a public figure in my country.  His arrogance is so profound that even those in his own party have brazenly confronted him on the matter and he has merely responded with more arrogance and bluster.  But two nights ago in a debate with ten others vying for the nomination, perhaps he demonstrated the criticism is getting through even to him.  Perhaps.  At the end of the debate, the moderator posed a light-hearted question, “Name a hypothetical code name that you would want from the Secret Service should you become the President.”  Trump’s response, with a slight pause and a faint smile of self-consciousness, responded with, “Humility.” Wow!

What’s inside always comes out.  This is true individually and collectively.  Trump is putting on a show for our collective psyche, demonstrating in flesh and blood a parody of a conservative theme of the political far right—American exceptionalism.  I too love my country and think also that it is “exceptional.”  But I think all countries and cultures should be encouraged to have “community” pride without taking it to the extremes we often see here and in other extremist groups around the world.  This is also egregiously apparently with churches and religious groups who should have pride in their spiritual tradition but take care to not let the poison of human arrogance tempt them to believe they are the only ones who have “got it.”

Carl Jung: What we Resist,Persists!

During my clinical practice, family therapy was probably the most difficult task that I had to tackle.  I’m sure this was because I, too, grew up in a very dysfunctional family and with these families I had to stare at my own unresolved issues stemming from growing up in an enmeshed family.

But the dysfunctionality of families is also present in all groups and is usually kept beneath the surface by the “structure” of the group which dictates what will be allowed into “reality.”  Just as with a dysfunctional family, the “identified patient” of a group will often “go off the reservation” and begin to articulate with word and deed the hidden secrets of the group.  And this brings me to the delightful comedy of the current Republican Party’s campaign for the presidential nomination in 2016 and the “Donald Trump Show.”  Mr. Trump for the past three months has been almost daily “acting out” by boldly and brazenly voicing what the establishment of his party tacitly embraces but would never admit to.  For example, he has taken overtly racist and misogynist positions and when attacked has merely “doubled down” and thrived as a result. This is because the base of his party is delighted with a politician who is “telling it like it is” and is promising to “Make America Great Again.””

The “fun part” of this is to watch the Republican establishment squirm and begin to take pot shots at “the Donald” all of which would give most men and women pause and lead them to “chill out.”  But Trump refuses to back down and as a result continues to prosper in the popularity polls. Yesterday one of the “siblings” in his dysfunctional family, Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal…tired of being almost totally ignored…decided to push things a step further and pointedly addressed the core issues of Trump, calling him a “narcissist” and “egotist,” declaring at one point that Trump’s half-hearted and awkward efforts at posing as a Christian were totally insincere.”  For example, Jindal declared, “We know he does not read the Bible, because he is not in it.”

Trump is the Republican Party’s “enfant terrible” and is functioning as their “bull in the China closet”…and they can’t stop him as the base of the party loves it!  Yes, he is “telling the truth” that the party establishment will not tell but doing so without any respect for decorum and respect.  He is the classic narcissistic and does not know that “Truth, like love and sleep, resent approaches that are too steep.” (W. H. Auden)

Let me emphasize that this “comedy” is merely an illustration of the “comedy” of daily life.  We all live in families, including groups, and each of them have their “secrets” which are carefully guarded, kept buried in the collective “unconsciousness.”  But as long as a group…or individual…fails to acknowledge the dark morass of the unconsciousness, it will continue to simmer and control their decision-making.  As Carl Jung succinctly noted, “What we resist, persists.”

http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2015/09/10/bobby-jindal-donald-trump-narcissist-sot-newsroom.cnn/video/playlists/race-to-2016/

http://www.c-span.org/video/?328022-1/governor-bobby-jindal-rla-remarks-national-press-club

s