I pop a ginseng capsule and take another slurp of coffee. The open page of my writing notebook displays no fiery prose. I’ve been invoking the spirit of Thomas Paine to little avail.
Here in the hot October sun at a café in western Detroit, the temperature is 20 degrees above normal, another crisp warning of earth in revolt. Why does the earth revolt at its abuse and not the people? I ask this question of my muse, while reminding it, too, that our leaders want to start another war. But my muse remains immobilized, as indifferent at the moment to our crimes of destruction as a typical American citizen.
News of the latest deluge of sorrow from Iraq sits open on the table. It seems that the Mandeans, a small Iraqi minority and the only surviving Gnostics from antiquity, are being wiped out. These pacifists, whose ancestors produced the Gospel of Thomas, refuse to carry weapons for their own protection. In the whirlwind of the Iraqi civil war, they are being kidnapped, raped, beaten, extorted, murdered, and subjected to forced conversions by radical Islamists. In 2003, about 60,000 of them lived in peace. Now, fewer than 5,000 remain in place.
If my pen could evoke one small measure of this sacrilege, it would quickly summon a thousand words to inspire a million of us to rebel. But like our polyester hearts, this pen is just a piece of plastic. Yet even a made-in-China pen that won’t spell democracy can do more to save us than those decommissioned Democrats in Congress who fight tyranny “heavily armed,” as Bob Herbert puts it, “with thermometers, barometers, and windmills.”
Many progressive writers have struggled valiantly to mobilize the people. I, for one, have accused Americans of fearfulness, apathy, cynicism, stupidity, narcissism, and passivity. These insults, warnings, and pleas have fallen like sprinkles of precipitation on the Texas panhandle. Who will notice the black rain that falls after we bomb Iran?
The most obvious reason for citizen inaction is our unwillingness to shoulder the burden of freedom. We hide from our own self in a denial of our true calling—to evolve and each become a finer person less encumbered by fear, illusions, and egotism. People are defensive, anxious, and guilt-ridden when their hiding place is exposed by their refusal to answer an urgent call to action. So they block out what is real and become seekers of the unreal, pursuing an illusion of self-interest that is morally and spiritually self-defeating, while taking cold comfort in increasingly smaller measures of themselves.
Given this reality, how can progressives count on the general populace or the Democratic Party to support our vision of renewal and reform? Doesn’t our best hope reside in us? Yet we may need to become more powerful, not necessarily in numbers but in the goodness of our humanity. To do that, I believe we must give more credence to the idea that our better nature—call it the self—has to be honed to a sharper edge.
Our freedom depends on “the identified soul” or “the isolated Self,” Walt Whitman wrote in his essay, “Democratic Vistas.” Then “the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inscription, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines . . .”
Carl Jung wrote The Undiscovered Self in 1957 near the end of his life, and in it he pleaded with western civilization to pay more attention to the psyche and to understand its role in human affairs. He predicted, correctly, that our lack of insight would prevent us from seeing and defeating evil in our midst. Underestimation of the psychological factor, he said, “is likely to take a bitter revenge.” He said the self emerges when we step out of denial to take responsibility for what he called the shadow (the negative aspects) that lurks in our psyche.
I happen to believe that the self is the secular soul of democracy. Yet this idea of the self is controversial and even nonsensical for many progressives. We can get a sense of it, however, by approaching the idea through the back door, by considering the multitudes of people we see who have a false sense of self. This obvious falseness of theirs is due to egotism, erroneous beliefs, passivity, and conditioning, along with chronic guilt, shame, hatred, and self-rejection. The more distorted or chaotic an individual’s sense of self, the more difficulty this person is likely to face with emotional and behavioral self-regulation.
In addition, the self of many people is quashed by what the Sufis call “the commanding self” and psychoanalysis calls the superego. This is an inner authority in the psyche that poses as our conscience, but is in fact negative and irrational. Individuals so inflicted make poor citizens because they can’t feel their sovereignty.
The self that emerges from our interest in being impeccable is the foundation of wisdom and inner harmony. Unlike ego, the self is aligned with the common good which itself is the foundation of social harmony and progress.
Lack of a robust self is the greatest insecurity. Development of self is the fulfillment of personal and national destiny.
The nice thing about the self is that it’s free, it’s ours. Nobody can patent it, license it, or regulate it. No one can take it from us, although the establishment, in cooperation with us, has significantly suppressed it in us. By evolving, we won’t be disappointed again by the Democrats’ or any particular leader’s inability or unwillingness to save us from tyranny. We save ourselves.We can’t access the self if we’re passive, cynical, irrational, or hateful. These forms of emotional suffering cause us to be self-absorbed and ineffective as reformers. We start by believing in our goodness. And we must not be afraid of our power. We feel the richness of our emerging self and understand its role in national self-determination. This would be a wondrous revolution.