Americans have a remarkable ability ‘to look reality right in the eye’ and deny it.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.” A state of well-being is obviously more than just the absence of disease. It assumes that a human being is reasonably functional mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Similarly, this definition can be applied to healthy communities with the addition of social functionality as another aspect of well-being.
However, most readers are aware of the decline in mental health treatment within the past three decades. Whereas thirty years ago many working people had insurance benefits for outpatient psychotherapy as well as in-patient treatment, not only have the benefits dramatically decreased, but massive unemployment makes it virtually impossible for millions of people to pay for any kind of health care, physical or mental.
Meanwhile, nearly all inhabitants and communities of industrial civilization are struggling to cope with living in societies in unprecedented decline. Energy depletion, climate change, economic contraction, and the collapse of myriad institutions such as healthcare, education, infrastructure, and police and fire services weigh heavily on the wallets and emotions of millions. In the United States, the realities of the sequester debacle will only exacerbate the unraveling, and for many, avoiding homelessness and starvation are top priorities with nothing left over for any kind of healthcare. Yet it is precisely this demographic who are contending with monumental stress, and for many of them, just as they may be one paycheck away from being homeless, they may also be one stress away from mental and emotional meltdown.
The reader does not need yet another litany of this culture’s hyper-proliferating dysfunctions. However long or short your residence on this planet, you are well aware of its genocide of species and its suicide of itself. And regardless of how far removed from this madness you experience yourself, it invariably weighs upon you whether you choose to admit that or not. If you are the least bit honest with yourself, you recognize that you are surrounded by madness yet constantly being reassured, particularly in the United States, that you live in the safest, healthiest, freest, and most desirable country on earth.
Moreover, if in recent years or months you have dared to explore the realities of peak oil, climate change, and economic contraction and their inevitable ramifications, you may feel mega-schizophrenic as you live with this information and at the same time attempt to navigate a society in which every form of functioning is dictated by denial. In fact, you may feel as if you’re looking at one of those cube diagrams from a chapter on perception in a psychology textbook in which looked at one way, one of the sides of the cube appears to be in the foreground and the other side in the background, but when looked at another way, the foreground and background are reversed. On some days, you may feel completely crazy, yet on another day, you may feel blessedly sane but overwhelmed by the madness around you.
Historically speaking, it is important to remember that millions of individuals throughout history have felt similarly. Some were able to trust their instincts and respond resiliently; others were not. In the final days of the Roman Empire, many were able to see through the madness around them and vacate large cities. In Nazi Germany, some were able to discern the horror that lay ahead and escape. In the Soviet Union, millions lived through Stalinist purges and totalitarian oppression for decades knowing that a collapse was inevitable such as they witnessed in 1989-90.
Regardless of how robust a civilization may appear, certain aspects of it are terribly fragile, particularly its commitment to creativity vs. destruction. Jungian author and blogger, Paul Levy, writes in his 2013 Dispelling Wetiko:
A civilization usually doesn’t die from being invaded from the outside, but unless it creates culture which nourishes the evolution of the creative spirit, a civilization invariably commits suicide. As if possessed, our civilization is, trancelike, sleepwalking in a death march toward its own demise.
The word wetiko is a Native American term, the spelling of which varies from tribe to tribe, but essentially it means a diabolically wicked person or energy that terrorizes others by means of evil acts.
Carl Jung was one of the first modern psychologists to address the issue of collective madness. He theorized that individual humans possessed not only a personal unconscious mind but were also part of a collective unconscious mind which from time to time becomes activated and generates a collective psychosis. In the current moment, inhabitants of industrial civilization are living in cultures committed to infinite growth, consumerism, resource extraction, war, and of course, massive denial that any of these are inexorably destructive policies of planetary suicide. Humans are colluding in mad behavior, based on the sharing of an illusion which is the literal definition of collusion or co-illusion.
In fact, on days when you may feel as if you are surrounded by madness, it might be useful to read these words from Levy:
Whenever the contents of the collective unconscious become activated, they have an unsettling effect on the conscious mind of everyone. When this psychic dynamic is not consciously metabolized, not just within an individual, but collectively, the mental state of the people as a whole might well be compared to a psychosis. Jung never tired of warning that the greatest danger that threatens humanity is the possibility that millions of us can fall into our unconscious together and reinforce each other’s blind spots, feeding a contagious collective psychosis in which we unwillingly become complicit in supporting the insanity of endless wars; this is unfortunately an exact description of what is currently happening.
Collective madness manifests in myriad ways, but one manifestation is the self-reinforcing feedback loop of what Canadian psychiatrist, Gabor Maté calls “the realm of hungry ghosts,” a Buddhist term for people who are always hungry, always empty, and always seeking satisfaction from the outside. That is to say that we have created a society of insatiable addicts, many of whom have poor attention skills or full-blown attention deficit disorder.
Moreover, without using the terms “collective madness” or “collective unconscious” as Jung did, Maté describes a similar phenomenon with respect to how children in our society develop:
… the conditions in which children develop have been so corrupted and troubled over the last several decades that the template for normal brain development is no longer present for many, many kids. And Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, who’s a professor of psychiatry at Boston—University of Boston, he actually says that the neglect or abuse of children is the number one public health concern in the United States. A recent study coming out of Notre Dame by a psychologist there has shown that the conditions for child development that hunter-gatherer societies provided for their children, which are the optimal conditions for development, are no longer present for our kids. And she says, actually, that the way we raise our children today in this country is increasingly depriving them of the practices that lead to well-being in a moral sense.
In other words, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed the conditions required for healthy childhood development.
The Madness Of The Mental Health Community
Yet if you feel you need professional help with the schizophrenic feelings you are experiencing regarding the state of the planet, and if you are brave enough to visit a mental health professional in the United States and begin talking about the “collective psychosis,” peak oil, or the collapse of industrial civilization, you are likely to be diagnosed with some sort of anxiety disorder or clinical depression. Sooner or later, your mental health professional is likely to suggest medication and attempt to work with you to “reframe” your perception of the world or perhaps suggest that you invest more energy in the positive aspects of your life than dwell on the negative realities of the macrocosm. Certainly, we would like to believe that the mental health community is exempt from a collective psychosis, and some members of it are. However, the overwhelming majority are not. Of this Levy says:
That the mental health community, which should be concerned with psychic hygiene (both personal and collective), is not even addressing the issue of a rampant collective psychosis is a clear indication that the mental health community is itself embedded in and hence infected with the very psychic epidemic it should be studying….What clearer sign do we need of a psychic epidemic than when our mental health system itself, whose job it is to study, monitor, and deal with such phenomena, not only doesn’t recognize that there is a collective psychosis running rampant in our society, but is itself infected with it?
In an article entitled “Working Through Environmental Despair” in Theodore Roszak’s marvelous book, Ecopsychology, Joanna Macy writes:
But because of the individualistic bias of mainstream psychotherapy, we have been conditioned to assume that we are essentially separate selves, driven by aggressive impulses, competing for a place in the sun. In the light of these assumptions, psychotherapists tend to view our affective responses to the plight of our world as dysfunctional and give them short shrift. As a result, we have trouble crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare might be genuine enough and acute enough to cause distress. Assuming that all our drives are ego-generated, therapists tend to regard feelings of despair for our planet as manifestations of some private neurosis.
In the first pages of John Michael Greer’s latest book, Not The Future We Ordered: Peak Oil, Psychology, And The Myth Of Progress, he notes a number of “unmentionable crises” throughout history that were actually social crises, but because of the undesirability of dealing with them, they were temporarily “re-framed” as personal crises. One of these was a contrived “pathology” in relation to African American slaves living in slave states who were said to have suffered from a mental illness called “Drapetomania” in which they had an “irrational” desire to run away. Yet another example Greer cites is the lack of meaning and value in the lives of women in the 1950s and 60s that Betty Friedan described as “the problem that has no name.” These are two examples of how social crises were reframed as personal problems which conveniently enabled addressing them as social phenomena to be postponed indefinitely.
Similarly in current time, we are witnessing an enormous gap between the dominant story of our culture which is one of “infinite progress” and the palpable sense of anxiety and despair that permeates the psyches of most inhabitants of industrial civilization. According to Greer, the notion of infinite progress has become nothing less than a “civil religion,” and questioning the reality of the notion is one of the most disturbing heresies a “civilized” human being can commit. Moreover, as Greer notes, “Central to the myth of progress, and also one of the keys to its potent emotional appeal, is its affirmation of the omnipotence of human agency.” That is to say that axiomatic within the “religion of progress” is the assumption that if an individual or a community is not experiencing progress, it is merely because that individual or community is not exerting enough effort, is not working smart enough, or its investments are not shrewd enough. This is another way of saying that progress is of our own making—or not, and that if we aren’t reaping the fruits of it, we are suffering the consequences of our choices and need to make different ones.
Those who embrace the notion of peak oil or the collapse of industrial civilization are perceived by the society at large as “deviant” because they do not hold to the dominant mentality of infinite progress. Greer points out that mainstream culture can conceive essentially of only two scenarios for the future: 1) Infinite progress which has a few fits and starts but overall, continues in an upward trajectory indefinitely; 2) An apocalyptic scenario such as an asteroid hitting the earth, a nuclear war, or severe natural disasters that wipe out a series of regions worldwide. What it cannot grasp, according to Greer, is a steady, gradual decline over a period of decades and years which results in abject energy depletion, the long-term collapse of institutions and centralized systems, and the protracted devolution of industrial society downward to a state of primitive, pre-industrial functioning.
By and large, mental health professionals in the modern world are able to connect the dots between the explosion in the number of clients suffering from addictions, depression, anxiety, attachment disorders, learning disabilities, and other illnesses with world events at large. Most fall somewhere on the liberal side of the political spectrum and support efforts to maximize the quality of life for humans and the quality of the environment for all species. Yet I believe that most clinicians who are not familiar with the “Three E’s” of energy, environment, and economics as converging crises signaling the collapse of industrial civilization, will be emotionally challenged in working with a client who embraces this perspective. Few Gabor Matés, Paul Levy’s, or Joanna Macys occupy therapy consulting rooms, and few mental health professionals are willing to deeply explore what the collapse of the systems on which they rely would mean for them personally.
To be fair, many mental health professionals are frantically attempting to re-invent themselves as hospitals, clinics, and agencies close and they find themselves without employment, but in my experience, few are able to grasp the larger picture of peak oil and the Long Emergency. Curiously, if they are able to make the leap to the larger picture, then indeed, they will at some point find themselves reeling from this knowledge and probably begin feeling as schizophrenic as any client who would seek help with the same issue.
Collapse Deviants And The Shadow
The shadow, according to Levy is: “…typically conceived of as the underdeveloped, undesirable, and inferior parts of our personality; the aspects of ourselves which we repress the most; it is the part of ourselves we are least proud of and want to hide from others.” (86) Not only do we each individually have a personal shadow, but cultures create shadows as well. When we do not own the shadow and affirm that it is as much a part of us as the other aspects of ourselves that we cherish, we invariably construct a system of projection in which we unconsciously attribute the shadow parts of ourselves to someone else.
“When we project the shadow,” says Levy, “we unwittingly become a conduit for evil to possess us from behind, beneath our conscious awareness, and to act itself out through us.” As individuals we frequently project the shadow onto other individuals without realizing that we are doing so. Whenever we encounter someone that we really don’t like or who pushes our buttons, we are also encountering some aspect of the shadow. That is not to say that the other person has no offensive qualities, but rather, that some aspect of our own shadow is triggered by them. Furthermore, how we choose to respond externally to the other person is less important than what we learn about our own shadow by exploring it throughout our interactions with the other.
Collectively, we project the shadow on nations or communities when we attribute virtue to ourselves and evil to the other. The repeated utterances of George W. Bush as he called Islamic fundamentalists “the evildoers,” demonstrated an exquisite example of shadow projection. Likewise, as American citizens target and bully immigrants, gays, lesbians, and the disabled in hate crimes, the shadow is blatantly and brutally at work in projecting onto the other the unclaimed parts of the self. (For an in-depth study of America’s collective shadow projection, I recommend Madness At The Gates Of The City: The Myth Of American Innocence, by Barry Spector.)
Understanding the shadow and its projections assists us in navigating a culture in which we are deemed “deviants” or “heretics” because we no longer embrace the notion of infinite progress. Certainly, it is no surprise when a corporate lackey or a Wall St. banker accuses us of deviance, but being pathologized by a mental health professional may be. I have experienced that even in circles of Jungian therapists and teachers who have spent decades of their lives working with the shadow, resistance to the tragic, ultimate consequences of humanity’s suicidal behavior is frequently interpreted only symbolically and attended by a refusal to recognize a literal collapse of industrial civilization, including the possibility that humanity may inevitably cause our planet to become uninhabitable.
A Call To Mental Health Professionals
As the Long Emergency intensifies, mental health professionals can choose to continue framing client anxieties about the social situation as personal pathologies, as the majority are now doing, or they can open themselves to having an “End of Suburbia” moment in which they themselves confront the demise of the civil religion of progress. This necessitates, as Greer notes, a willingness to pass through what he calls “The Five Stages Of Peak Oil,” in which one moves from denial, through anger, bargaining, and grief, toward acceptance—a non-linear process first outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in relation to death and loss.
As a result of moving through their own epiphany about our predicament and doing their own grieving, if a therapist or counselor can, in the words of Greer, “take the presence of collective crisis into account in their work, help clients explore and articulate the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing, and provide a supportive framework in which clients can work through the stages of grief and begin the search for meaningful ways of living in a world on the far side of progress, the benefits to society as well as the individual may not be small.”
The human toll of mental health professionals not allowing themselves to pass through the Five Stages of Peak Oil and therefore be able to genuinely empathize with and hold their clients in the current crisis will be severe, not only for the individual client but for society at large. The rewards, however, for the clinician, the client, and the community are potentially incalculable and profoundly hopeful. And here I use the word hope in the same manner as Greer who defines authentic hope as the combination of personality traits that respond to difficult circumstances by finding some good that can be achieved, and then striving to achieve it. In other words, genuine hope is an internal, pro-active response to one’s predicament as opposed to a passive anticipation that external circumstances will change or that someone will discover a magic solution.
The Healing Power Of Paradox
So how do we maintain our wholeness in an increasingly fractured, fragmented, and shattered world?
A pillar of Jungian psychology is the notion of holding the tension of opposites. This ancient concept, clearly articulated by the Medieval alchemists, applies to the psyche as well as to the alleged transformation of metal into gold. The alchemists claimed that the transformation resulted from allowing opposite chemical elements to remain in a container subject to intense heat. Psychologically speaking, when confronted with the horrors of our predicament, the most crucial ingredient for maintaining our wholeness is holding the tension of the opposites within ourselves, that is, the both/and of our experience. Rather than asking: “Will the collapse be fast or slow?” we must know that it is being both fast and slow even as I write these words and you read them. Rather than pondering whether to retreat back into the comfort of denial and pretend that everything you’ve heard about collapse is nonsense or conversely, sinking into abject depression and despair because “nothing matters anyway,” consider that the future is all about both/and.
As I write these words, more than 13,000 contaminated dead pigs are floating down the Shanghai River in China, and yet somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere, spring is coming to the land—robins are singing and crocuses are bursting forth from the earth. Yes, if you are preparing for the Long Emergency, you are a deviant in the eyes of so many of this culture’s institutions, the mental health system being one of them—and, you are also an extraordinary, intelligent, vibrant, unique human being with gifts to offer your community and your world that we all desperately need.
In this both/and world of the present and the future, as psychologist Bill Plotkin says, we must move from pre-occupation with EGO-psychology to immersion in ECO-psychology. Otherwise, we will not be able to maintain wholeness in the madness. Perhaps the loudest message of this Great Turning/Great Churning/Decline/Demise/Collapse/Transition is that living our lives from the perspective of the human ego is exactly what brought us to this convergence of crises, and not only is it no longer working; it will never work again! Excluding spiritual and emotional preparation for the future in our arduous efforts to prepare logistically is a continuation of the soul-murder perpetuated by industrial civilization.
We maintain our wholeness in the madness by joining with others to begin making the kind of world we want our children and the next seven generations to live in. If you yourself are a helping professional of any kind, embrace your deviance and commit to proliferating the deviance! The opportunities for re-imagining, sharing, cooperating, and partnering with kindred hearts are endless. In fact, never have so many humans had so many opportunities to resiliently re-fashion their lives and their communities.
However, we must not revert to the “keep busy doing projects so that you don’t have time to think” syndrome of industrial civilization. In my experience, every person who is preparing for the Long Emergency needs safe spaces where they can discuss their feelings about the future with kindred souls. The Transition founders certainly got it right when they included “The Heart And Soul/Psychology Of Change” initiative in the Transition model. Consciously preparing for the future is a task far too onerous, too overwhelming, and too anxiety-provoking to take on in isolation. In terms of the Five Stages of Peak Oil, the mental health system lags far behind “the psychology of change” initiative and is yet another institution highly susceptible to collapse.
In my own community, our local “Growing Resilience” group is moving into its fourth year. Our activities have included a weekly book study, a quarterly movie/potluck night, and annual solstice rituals. We have created a safe place for members to speak freely their concerns about the future and give and receive support. Yet ours is but one model in a sea of possibilities for dialog and the forging of bulwarks for creating emotional resilience.
And so dear reader, know that this Sacred Demise is awakening humans throughout the planet and carries within it the potential for creating a new species of human. But we must remember that health means wholeness, and without attending to the soul, wholeness eludes us. In the words of Paul Levy:
The only thing that really matters now is whether humanity can climb up to a higher moral level through self-reflection and be able to evolve into a more expanded state of consciousness….If ever there was a time when the turning inward of self-reflection was of critical importance, it is now, in our present catastrophic epoch….In the moment of self-reflection, the psychospiritual necessity for evolutionary growth overrules the biological compulsion of unreflective animal instinct….Self-reflection is a genuinely spiritual act, which is, essentially, an act of becoming conscious.
Carolyn Baker, Ph.D. manages her website at www.carolynbaker.net and is the author of Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path Of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse and Navigating The Coming Chaos: A Handbook For Inner Transition. She lives in Boulder, Colorado where she works with Transition Colorado. A former psychotherapist, she offers life coaching for people who want to live more resiliently in the present as they prepare for the future. Her forthcoming 2013 book is entitled, Collapsing Consciously: Transformative Truths For Turbulent Times. She may be contacted at Carolyn@carolynbaker.net