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Another Perspective on Hatred, Violence, and War

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I sometimes feel pessimistic about humanity's chances of ever overcoming our primitive displays of hatred, violence, and war.

The violence and war we bestow upon others come back full circle. Our violent instincts, for example, are related to the health of our planet: Turning our planet into a no-man's-land is simply another way we sacrifice our humanity to the gods of destruction.

Many of us are desperately hoping that a politician can lead us off the battlefield of self-defeat. Not even Barack Obama, should he be our godsend, can save us from ourselves. As Alice Walker wrote this week:

"Even if Obama becomes president, our country is in such ruin it may well be beyond his power to lead us toward rehabilitation. If he is elected however, we must . . . insist on helping him do the best job that can be done; more, we must insist that he demand this of us." 

What would Obama demand of us? Presumably, he would ask us to unite as fellow Americans, to believe in our goodness and our destiny, and to support his overtures to world leaders to move toward human rights, mutual respect, and peace among nations.

Even if we try our best, it may not be good enough. I have a special reason for being pessimistic. After more than 25 years of working as a psychotherapist, during which I have heard the deepest emotions of thousands of people, I'm convinced that we humans are in great denial about a crucial flaw in our human nature.

This flaw (which I describe further along) explains why, as a nation, we don't learn from history. Seventy years after the Great Depression, we may be about to repeat a variation of that agony. Thirty-some years after Vietnam, we are repeating in Iraq a variation of that folly and travesty.

I learned about this flaw in human nature in 1985 from the writings of psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler, M.D (1899-1962.) Bergler wrote 24 psychology books along with 273 articles that were published in leading professional journals. Many of his titles are in print and available at International Universities Press (

Despite the brilliance of his writings, Bergler, an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis in 1938 and lived in New York City, is completely ignored by modern psychologists and researchers. Many if not most of them have not even heard of him.

Bergler agreed with conventional psychoanalysis that we retain in our psyche those feelings from childhood of being deprived, helpless, and controlled. As adults we interpret our experiences through these unresolved emotions. Whatever is unresolved in us will continue to be experienced in a manner that is painful and self-defeating. In childhood, we also acquire impressions of being rejected, unloved, betrayed, and criticized. Even if we are loved and respected, our emotional side is still entangled, to some degree, in these negative impressions.

If we had cruel or dysfunctional parents, or if our genetic makeup is unfavorable, our entanglement in these negative emotions can be more problematic.

Bergler broke with convention when he claimed that we are emotionally attached to these forms of lingering negativity. That means that not only do we refuse at an unconscious level to let go of our negativity, we secretly look for ways to experience it.

Not only is the pleasure principle a powerful draw, so then is the suffering principle. Bergler called this flaw the basis neurosis, a condition which he said was common to all humanity. This dark side hides out in us all, and it can produce, among other emotional frailties, defensiveness, apathy, self-pity, and self-absorption.

In my view, this dark side is the abode of our inner demons. It is the source of everyone's capacity for evil. We have both the light and the darkness within us-but we don't see either with enough clarity.

According to Bergler, our defense system is designed to cover up our collusion in this hidden negativity (or our indulgence in it). For instance, we often blame others for our negative feelings, and become angry and hateful towards them, when in fact the negativity we feel belongs to us. When we understand our emotional attachment to this negativity, we can begin to eliminate it. (Bergler's clinical term for our emotional attachment to this negativity was psychic masochism.)

If Bergler is right, we have a new perspective on humanity's difficulty in learning from history. Personal and national self-defeat and self-sabotage would logically be consequences of having such a flaw. We can understand more clearly our hesitation in acting in our best interest. We can avoid doing the foolish things that sabotage our careers and relationships.

Such a dark side would be the source of our instinct for violence and war. The dark side itself is a form of inner violence-even inner terrorism-because it harasses us and it sabotages our best interests with utter heartlessness. It frequently exists in the human psyche in the form of self-criticism, self-rejection, and self-hatred.

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Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)
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