The Chronic

With apologies to my esteemed colleague Dr. Dre, I want to reflect a moment on what I’ll call the chronic. It’s not an easy or entirely pleasant topic. Following Dr. Jung, however, I hope to bring my tiny light into dark regions.

By the chronic I mean what persists despite our best efforts. What doesn’t go away. Old habits persist despite yearly resolutions. Relational dynamics persist. I want you to change; you want me to change; here we are, essentially the same as ever. We call health problems chronic when they won’t go away completely. Poverty and violence and other social problems certainly resist change. You get the notion.

All sorts of changes occur, of course, and therapy and other measures create profound changes, if not always what we expected or thought we wanted. But essential natures, inborn, incurable propensities and aversions, tend to exert considerable force against our heroic attempts to conquer them. I feel that I am breaking a taboo when I write this. What is more dear to us ‘Americans’ than the potential for self-transcendence? To overcome the self and its chronic conditions. It’s part of our charm to embody the potential for the new, the innocent, the hopeful. I like this and embrace it, yet sometimes reality intrudes on this very American fantasy.

To step back further, consider the quest in our country’s history to overcome ourselves. One of my favorite college courses investigated novelists from the States who returned to old world countries in an attempt, I think, to find something lost, and also to lose innocence, to revisit the shadows of ancestral lands. Many immigrants to the new world were deeply religious and intent on building a new Zion, an ocean away from the old world and its persecution, its wars, its tyrannies. All of the old chronic conditions of the old world. A new, self-transcending human being would be the citizen of this new city.

Hopping along the arc of analogy, consider now the quest for self-realization embodied and popularized in humanistic psychologies developed largely in our country. Here again we often find a struggle to overcome the chronic conditions of the self and its environment. The leap from priest to psychologist isn’t far: from preacher of repentance and new life to mentor of self-realization.

Next consider a counterfoil to these transcendental threads in our culture: According to Jung’s psychology, the dialectical development of the self in relation to the unconscious psyche demands at certain stages a loss of innocence towards reality. Things are as they are; the self is as it is; experience comes unbidden, and often frustrates our wishes. There exists a perennial blindness towards things as they are, personally and culturally, when things as they are do not suit our plans. The ego has to suffer this loss of innocence, and feel this defeat at times in order to continue developing in relation to the different parts of the psyche.

Unpleasant as this can be, it can generate a freedom to enjoy an enlivening relationship to the creative, archetypal forces in the psyche. The ego gets dethroned. We get busted out of the narcissistic prisons that we had created in an attempt to make things a little safer, and to soften the impact of life’s chronic difficulties.

I think of Jung’s famous definition of God: “God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.

Cracked open, experience becomes more expansive to include a fuller palette for self and other. Why? I don’t know, but perhaps the self is no longer unconscious opponent, oppressor, saboteur of our attempts to transcend it. The game is up. Creative types report feeling that during periods of inspiration and artistic work, other forces besides the ego are in play. I hope that what comes is a less fraught experience of one’s own nature, its depths, its curious unfolding, its contentious relationship with itself, and its struggle to define and refine itself over the course of a lifetime.


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