Any organization can exhibit many of the qualities of a human being. I wish to speak about the United States of America. I want to examine this nation, as if it were an individual, and try to understand its psychological and spiritual state in order to better understand the troubling things that are happening in the US and being perpetrated by the US around the world.
As a spiritual counselor for over 35 years, I have worked with many different people, presenting with a great array of issues. I have worked with mentally ill adults in residential settings and they taught me a lot about myself. I have worked on myself, psychologically and spiritually, for a very long time with mixed results. (I am not enlightened yet.)
I do not want to oversimplify the complexities of psychology or spirituality, but it seems to me that many of the issues people struggle with on a daily basis have a lot to do with self-image. First of all, we do not see the world as it is but as we are. We live according to our perceptions, not according to what is "true." We are successful in life to the extent that our perceptions approximate reality. Most of us do not see ourselves accurately, nor do we see the world accurately.
The self that we believe in is a combination of ideas we have about ourselves. Those ideas begin to intrude in our lives from the day we are born. Many of our ideas about ourselves come from our parents and early childhood experiences. The same can be said about the US. Much of the self-image of the US comes from our pride in the warriors of the American Revolution and in the almost mythical wisdom of our founding fathers.
Self-images are complex but, aside from those that might be fairly accurate, our self-image generally errs on the side of being overly negative, so that we perceive ourselves as being less than we are, or overly positive, so that we see ourselves as much better than we are.
I believe that the US has a greatly inflated self-image. The farther away a self-image gets from reality, the closer an individual or a nation comes to being seriously mentally ill. As with any individual, the more inflated the self-image, the more unrealistic that image becomes and the more out of touch with reality a nation becomes.
What are the consequences of this gap between self-image and reality? Is it really a big problem? An individual with an inflated ego might be a blowhard and really full of herself or himself, but are they a danger to themselves or others? Serious disconnects between reality and self-image can lead to paranoia and even schizophrenia, but even a schizophrenic is likely to do more harm to himself than to anyone else. A nation with such a gap is another matter.
My understanding of the harm that can be done by this gap, in terms of the United States, is to use the Jungian concept of the archetype known as the Shadow. Simply put, when there are aspects of a human being that are denied or rejected, they are pushed down into the basement of the psyche. Were this repression the only thing that occurred, it might not be a problem. There are two things that make the action of the shadow a problem. One is that we will project our shadow aspects onto other nations. We will judge that other nation as being wrong or even evil, depending on the strength of our shadow. Even worse, our shadow will act through us, unconsciously, even while we think we are successfully repressing it.
I will talk about how the shadow aspects of the US are acted out through projection and through unconscious behavior but I first want to say a few words about self-image as it is expressed in this country.
The Self-Image of the United States of America
I think it is safe to say that there is no nation on the planet today that is more image-conscious than the US and the American people. Perhaps there is deep-seated pride in the fact that a bunch of frontier colonists kicked the butt of one of the greatest nations on earth (with a lot of help from the French). I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that the US is the movie capital of the world. With movies came the importance of image. And then advertising jumped onto the bandwagon and learned the importance of selling images and not products. More recently, over at least the past few decades, our politicians have been packaged and sold like toothpaste.
In America, image is everything. We are the plastic surgery capital of the world. We are the dieting and exercise champions. Everywhere you turn, you will find the victory of image over substance. We follow our superstars around like they were little gods and goddesses. Appearance is everything. Young and beautiful is good. Old and less beautiful is not as good. Age is shunned and feared rather than revered. The most recent evidence of this distortion of self-image is the proliferation of so-called "reality" shows. What characterizes all of these shows is that none of them are real. All are fabricated. One of the symptoms of a self-image out of control is the inability to tell what is real. There is a narrowing of vision and perception so that only certain things are allowed into consciousness, those things that support our self-image.
The US is the greatest country on the earth. We have the best government, the best military, the most money, the most toys, and the most of everything. We are number one and being number one is very important. As with any individual with an inflated self-image, many of the things that Americans take for granted about our country are simply not true. And we are number one in a lot of things that we have no reason to be proud of.
Symptoms of the Action of the Shadow
The presidency of Ronal Reagan was a perfect metaphor for our inflated self-image and the action of the shadow. How perfect was it to have a man in the White House who was an actor? In my humble opinion, Ronny was a far better actor as president than he ever was in the movies. His own self-image was that of a small town sheriff come to clean up the town and drive out the bad guys. He was all white hat and white horse and the bad guys (communists, especially the Soviets) were very very bad.
It is wonderful that he called the Soviets the "Evil Empire." I love that. The inflated self-image tends to take on larger than life qualities and tends toward the juvenile. The Evil Empire is right out of the movies, or, more accurately, right out of the comic books. The same is true of George W. Bush's "Axis of Evil." How can anyone listen to that kind of juvenile superhero talk without at least snickering a bit?
Bush wanted to be a great president and believed that all of the great presidents were war presidents. This was while he was still governor of Texas. He wanted to be a war president and he wanted his war to be with Iraq. That would be his superhero role. Notice how much Bush loves talking about himself as Commander-In-Chief. That is his superhero fantasy. We have a child in the presidency, a very dangerous child.
The more polarized one's view of the world, the more out of touch with reality one becomes. If the US is always the good guy, then our enemy, whoever it might be at the time, is always the bad guy. But with the inflated self-image of the US, we become the ultimate good and the enemy becomes the ultimate evil. And because the enemy is always ultimate evil, there is no need to treat them like human beings.
It is because the US projects its own "evil" nature onto the enemy that the shadow is allowed to escape from its prison and act out in the world. Because the enemy is ultimate evil, we are justified in acting toward them with any extreme. There is no compromise. There is no negotiation. The lines are clearly drawn and our cause, no matter the suffering it may bring about, is just, by definition, because we are just.
In the 230-some years of the life of this nation, the United States has committed numerous heinous crimes against humanity. These have been ignored, minimized, shoved under the carpet, and denied. For these 230 years our shadow has been growing, and the bigger it gets, the more we have to deny it. The more we deny it, the more we project it onto other countries. The more we project it onto other countries, the more our shadow is loosed on the world.
Bush, the Shadow President
If Reagan was out of touch with reality with his black and white view of the world, he didn't do too much more harm than other presidents and less than some. But with Bush, we have a president who has totally embraced the dark side. He is the shadow of the US writ large. He does not just have a narrow view of reality; he lives totally within his own reality. His self-image and his image of the world are completely his own. The problem is that he expects everyone else to share that image.
The sad thing is that Bush is the perfect representative of the US right now. He epitomizes the shadow of the US. He is the personification of our dark side. At least now we can see it. Now it slowly begins to seep into the consciousness of Americans. There is a serious disconnect between the lofty image of the US and the terrible things we are doing in Iraq, at home, and in other parts of the world. Reality and image can only stretch so far from one another before something snaps.
The president is already insane. It is likely that he has been a sociopath since birth. That's why he so perfectly represents the shadow side of America. Individuals often need some kind of crisis to bring their own shadows to their attention. The US obviously needed such a crisis as well. In Bush, we have the perfect opposite of all of the good things that Americans have come to believe about themselves and about their country. Why doesn't everybody see that he is insane by his behavior over his lifetime? If we allow ourselves to see someone else's shadow, we may have to look at our own.
How did such a man get elected to the presidency? When a nation has been conditioned to pay attention to image, their vision becomes very superficial. The president of the United States is elected very much in the same way as any president of a high school class. It is a popularity contest. Bush was elected through better advertising. His opponents were characterized as the evil opposite to his heroic stature. He was charming and he smiled a lot. He was like a regular guy. People didn't care if he promised free lunches or more assemblies, they just thought he looked like the best guy for the job. Then, of course, there is the whole thing about stealing the election. But even without stealing the election, Bush got more votes than he should have based on his history, his qualifications, and his political positions.
The US is a teenager at best. It behaves like a teenager or even younger. Why did the American people support the war in Iraq? The Bush team of advertisers and public relations people packaged and sold Iraq like any other product. The American people are used to being swayed by commercials. For the most part, commercials are just another way of lying or at best exaggerating. Americans were swayed by Bush's commercials about the war. But they were also excited about the prospect of going to war, just like any high school student gets excited about the big football game.
Why did Americans become patriotic after we declared war on Iraq? Why weren't they waving flags before? Why weren't there flags on their cars and trucks before? A war brings out the feelings of school spirit. Our school is the best and we need to support our school. We're going to kick the butts of that other school because we're number one. This is juvenile behavior. It is irrational. We also tend to believe what our president tells us. We're the good guys and our president is the head good guy. People are not used to sociopaths. Bush isn't the first president to lie to us. His own pappy did a pretty good job of it too. But it is difficult for people to conceive of a human being lying so easily and so often about something that will most certainly mean the deaths of hundreds if not thousands. (Probably no one, for or against the war, could have predicted the casualties we have to date.)
Even today, after all that has happened, it is difficult for people to believe that Bush, Cheney, and others are routinely lying to us. A nation with a big shadow needs to cling to the lie as strongly as possible. If that lie is exposed, there can be a serious breakdown in our false self-image. If we don't believe Bush's lies, we are in danger of seeing all of the lies, lies that have supported the nation's inflated self-image for many years.
The only cure for the shadow is to bring it into the open and acknowledge it. This can be a very painful experience for an individual. It requires great courage and unstinting honesty. It will be no less painful for a nation. The more inflated the self-image, the more powerful the shadow. The more powerful the shadow, the more painful it is to acknowledge it. America has created a huge shadow over the decades. We have been in denial for a long time. We have refused to see our flaws and have covered them over with makeup and done our own version of plastic surgery.
The irony of shadow work is that the only way that America can get in touch with her true beauty, her true power, and her true greatness is to acknowledge the dark side, to accept the harm that she has done and repent of it. A new self-image must be created. It won't be as lofty as the one that will be lost, but it can be more real and it will do far less harm in the world.
I am an American. I love my country, warts and all. I can't say that I am proud to be an American because being an American is an accident of birth or a choice of immigration. I have no right to feel proud about that. But I do want my country to be great and I believe it is still possible. That will not happen, however, until this nation sheds its shadow greatness, its inflated self-image, and arrogant self-importance. This won't be easy and there will be lots of resistance, but, my friends, this nation is being destroyed on every level of its being and it is being destroyed by its own leaders and by its own citizens. If we believe that we are courageous and honest people, then we need to apply that courage and honesty to our inflated and phony national image. We can create a new image that can be as great as we choose, but it will have to match up with reality as closely as possible if we are to survive as a nation.