Extinction Anxiety, By Randy Morris, Ph.D.

(Address for “Psyche and the Spirit of the Times: Psychoanalyzing Trumpism” given at Antioch University Seattle.)

 

In order to talk about extinction anxiety I first need to address epistemological anxiety, otherwise, you won’t know if what I am saying to you is a bunch of ‘fake news’ served up by yet another privileged white male. Epistemology is that branch of philosophy concerned with how we come to have knowledge about anything at all. In the age of Trumpism, this is a question about truth and lies. Like the negative space on a painter’s canvas, Trump’s compulsive lying (averaging about five a day since he became President, according to the New York Times) brings into stark relief the question of what truth is and how we come to know it. It raises the question of our own critical thinking skills in assessing the veracity of information sources and our own predisposition to believe false information that reinforces our entrenched positions. Furthermore, Trump has introduced a new form of lying to the political sphere, lying as entertainment.

 

Clearly, a large national discussion is due on the nature of truth and lies in the collective sphere. I will add my two-cent’s worth by pointing out that the epistemological revolution of the 20th century began with Einstein, who said that truth is not absolute, but is relative to the position of the observer. Notice that he did not say there is no truth, but that truth is relative to the position of the observer. In our current postmodern age this last point is often overlooked due to fears about the relativity of values, the falsification of religious beliefs by scientific truths and the fears of those in power that a consensual reality grounded in white, male Western thinking is being usurped.   I bring all of this up because I want to ground my comments tonight in my own truth, the only one I have. Yes, it is the truth of a white male, but in the nested hierarchies of privilege and oppression, I am a white male, and much, much more. Regardless of my positionality, I believe that truth is earned and that it is earned through compassionate attention to the world, disciplined critical thought and harsh experience. I like the way this is framed in David White’s poem Self-Portrait, which reads as follows:

 

 

Self Portrait — David Whyte

 

It doesn’t matter to me if there is one God

or many gods.

I want to know if you belong or feel

abandoned.

If you know despair or can see it in others.

 

I want to know

if you are prepared to live in the world

with its harsh need

to change you. If you can look back

with firm eyes

saying this is where I stand.

 

I want to know

if you know

how to melt into that fierce heat of living

falling toward

the center of your longing.

 

I want to know

if you are willing

to live, day by day, with the consequence of love

and the bitter

unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

 

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even

The gods speak of God.  

 

In the age of Trumpism, a time when lies are celebrated, nature is commodified, relationships are monetized and the sacred is mocked, it is very important to know ‘where you stand’ in the midst of this maelstrom.   The evidence of this maelstrom is all around us — in the contaminated air we breathe, in the plastic that permeates the ocean, in the glyphosate that coats our food, in the stark reality that we are consuming the earth’s resources at a rate that is far beyond its capacity to replace itself.   These truths are dire and they lead to a sense that the human species cannot continue to consume at its present rate without going the way of 99.999% of all species before us and disappearing from the face of the earth. The population biologist Charles Fowler estimates that the carrying capacity of the earth for creatures our size is about 10 million. That would require a reduction of human population by over 98%. (Fowler, 2008) Who is going to make that kind of sacrifice, and when? We can debate statistics, but the truth of the matter is that we cannot continue with business as usual. Something has got to give, and it will not be the facts of the environmental crisis. Depth psychology says that a part of ourselves, no matter how much we may wish the contrary, knows this to be true. A hundred years of depth therapy demonstrates that if we deny the truth of the unconscious, it will express itself in aberrant behaviors, psychoses, spasms of violence, and anxiety.

 

The experience of anxiety has many attributes. Anxiety is fear without an object, meaning that it is non-specific, we don’t know where it is coming from. It is always about anticipation, something is always about to happen. Anxiety often evokes an earlier painful event that wants to be avoided in the future. It involves helplessness, minimizing the subject’s power in relation to the magnitude of the danger. While there may be many sources of anxiety in any individual’s life, there is one overriding circumstance that affects us all, and that we all want to deny, namely, that the human species has created the conditions of its own demise. We fear our own extinction. So let me address extinction anxiety from where I stand in the hope that sharing my truth will contribute to breaking the trance of late-stage capitalism, of waking up to our current situation and finding the courage to live resilient lives in this dark night of the globe.

 

This much I know is true: I am a downwinder, born in Richland, Washington, between 1949 and 1951 in a tri-county area down river from the Hanford atomic reservation, from which there was a massive radiation leak in 1949. This land is now considered the most polluted place in North America. Fate led me to live in Hiroshima, Japan for three years in the early 1980’s where I taught at the Hiroshima International School and bore witness to the effects of the atomic bomb, a 13 kiloton device that killed over 100,000 people. I’ll never forget my first time walking through Hiroshima’s Peace Park and coming to a grassy knoll in front of which people were lighting incense sticks and praying. When I asked my friend what that was, he said it was the repository for the ash remains of 40,000 people who had been incinerated beyond recognition in the atomic pika-don or ‘flash-boom’. This is the first time I ever recall crying in public. Later I walked through the A-bomb museum to get a sense of the suffering of Hiroshima on that day. There were images of bodies piled up in drinking wells, people walking silently with their hands in front of them, skin dripping off their bodies in long sheets, children trapped in burning buildings crying for help that would never come. This bomb was 1/10th the size of just one of the many bombs that Trump cavalierly threatens to drop on North Korea to wipe out their 24 million people with ‘fire and fury’. To imagine that our country, including all of us, would once again be the perpetrators of this scale of suffering is a massive failure of the moral imagination.

 

So what truths did I learn about extinction anxiety during my long study of the bomb? One truth stands out amongst the others. I learned that the threat of nuclear annihilation breaks open our traditional notions of time. The half-life of some of the isotopes of plutonium we dropped on Nagasaki and of the uranium we dropped on Hiroshima is 80 million years and 4.5 billion years respectively. These are vast swaths of time that are barely accessible to the human imagination. As the psyche fumbles its way towards a picture of the future, it often encounters imaginal beings that are what the great Gaian teacher Joanna Macy calls “future ancestors”. With the advent of the atomic age in 1945, and the possibility of wiping out the human species in a single day through nuclear annihilation, the human imagination was initiated into what Macy calls ‘deep time’. Anyone who has done the meditative work of entering the objective psyche and looking into the future, knows that these future ancestors are yearning to be born. The decisions that we make today will impact their chances of emerging from the objective psyche and entering into space and time. Ironically, nuclear terror and extinction anxiety is an initiatory impulse to expand our imagination beyond its responsibilities toward past ancestors and present relations to include all future generations. The half life of uranium, 4.5 billion years, the age of the Earth, suggests that this sense of responsibility should extend beyond our own grandchildren, beyond seven generations, to include all future human generations, forming a true ‘partnership of generations’ that can serve as an ethical basis for religious, political, economic and environmental choices.

 

This much I know is true: I was the founder and coordinator of the Spiritual Studies track in the BA Liberal Studies program here at Antioch University Seattle from which I retired last year. There I tried to make two points. One is that “the clarification and enactment of vocation is the single most important act that one can undertake on behalf of the planet.” This is not to give short shrift to the necessity of extroverted action in the world, rather it insists that outer action must be balanced with inner work. Inner work on behalf of the planet moves in two directions, what Jung called, drawing on his alchemical studies, ‘the lesser work’ and ‘the greater work’. The lesser work is the integration of the shadow, those rejected and repressed parts of ourselves that reluctantly seek to be integrated into the ego. For most people, doing shadow work is the entirety of psychotherapy. Jung, however, called this the ‘lesser’ work, because it raises the question, ‘what does a relatively well integrated ego do?’ This would be the ‘greater work’ of finding one’s vocation, the inner telos or purposefulness of one’s life that is central to Jung’s idea of individuation. Unlike many psychologies of the day, including social constructivism, Jung did not believe that our vocation is the result of environmental circumstances, but that it is an inborn, innate tendency of the soul. The ‘greater work’ is the task of identifying this pre-existing soul spark and orienting our choices to be in alignment with it. Jung makes it clear that it is the birthright of every human being to be blessed with a purpose to their life. This purpose, Jung says, is what directs the fantasies of our inner life. Every dream is a compass that can orient us to our individuation process. This principle works at all three levels of the unconscious – personal, collective and world. In other words, my own dreams orient me to my personal purpose, but they also contain images that orient me to the purpose of the human species and the purpose of the earth herself. Because this is so, our dreams are a tremendous source of wisdom for a species that is in desperate need of guidance. The great Geologian Thomas Berry says that the dream that underlies our dreaming is the dream of the earth! (Berry, 1988)

 

A second point I have tried to make in the Spiritual Studies program is that the spiritual disease of ‘apatheia’, the deadening of the heart, is a consequence of living in the presence of fear and extinction anxiety. Apatheia is a Greek word meaning ‘non-suffering’. It is the inability or refusal to experience pain. Freud was the first depth psychologist to notice that the repression of pain was a signature of neurotic formations. It is the basis of the ‘talking cure’ in which he discovered that bringing the truth of sexual trauma to conscious awareness can lead to miraculous cures. In Joanna Macy’s masterful analysis of apatheia in her book Coming Back to Life, she asks, “What is this pain that we feel, but desperately try not to feel, in this moment of history?” She says it is of another order altogether than what the Greeks could have known. It pertains not just to privations of wealth, health, reputation, or loved ones, but also to losses so vast we can hardly name them. It is our pain for the world. (Macy and Brown, p. 26)

 

In the age of Trumpism, how are we to feel when we read the latest news reports of withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, of restoring the Keystone pipeline, of gutting the US State Department, of turning over our National Parks to extraction industries, of approving a copper mine in the midst of the richest salmon fields in the world, of threatening to wipe out a nuclear state with fire and fury? Speaking for myself, it scares the hell out of me, and I notice in myself the desire to turn on the TV, go to a movie, read a trash novel, buy a new piece of camping equipment, anything to distract me from facing the unprecedented challenges facing life on earth. A part of me knows that each of these news items are harbingers of our extinction as a species. As Macy writes, “The very danger signals that should rivet our attention, summon up the blood, and bond us in collective action, tend to have the opposite effect. They make us want to pull down the blinds and busy ourselves with other things.” (Macy and Brown, p. 26) Huge, billion dollar industries have arisen to support our need for distraction. It is the Disneyfication of America. But what is really needed is not a criticism of public apathy, but following the principles of depth psychology, a careful truth-telling of what is actually going on. And what is going on is that the earth is suffering, and as a bit of the earth that has been blessed with consciousness, we feel that pain too. We have a moral obligation to recognize it and work with it. Jung said that there is no growth of consciousness without pain. Experiencing the pain of the world is the price of consciousness in a threatened and suffering world and is a necessary component in its healing. (Macy and Brown, p. 27)

 

If the disease is a deadened heart in the midst of a suffering world, then one way to respond is to re-enliven the heart. In a class I teach at Antioch on ‘The Spiritual Psychology of the Human Heart”, we explore the incredible powers of the heart and its capacity to communicate with the anima mundi, the soul of the world. The anima mundi is a concept that appeared long before the subject-object split of Cartesian consciousness that withdrew the soul of the things of the world and located it inside the human being. The Cartesian way of thinking, which deadens the world and opens it to the ravages of capitalism, is the metaphysical underpinning of our Western way of life. It is all surfaces and horizons, commodities and hierarchies. It has no depth. By engaging in the heart as an organ of perception, we are re-introduced to the interiority of everything. We go down and in – to the interiority of our favorite plant, the hummingbird that visits us, that favorite tree, the neighbors we don’t know, the suffering of strangers. Cardiac consciousness allows us to perceive the inner qualities of the outer world. It draws us into the story of each individual thing and sensitizes us to its beauty and its suffering. This heart-based perceptual capacity already exists in the esoteric traditions of East and West, as well as the indigenous traditions. The common denominator of these worldviews is that all things are connected, indeed that we all co-arise together, mutually dependent on each other for our continued existence. It is systems theory writ large and applied to the whole universe. Trumpism is the latest symptom in the body politic that is showing us the way to a better future – a transition from an individualistic, empire-based worldview to one grounded in mutual interdependence and sustainability. Many have called this the Great Turning. It is an urgent call for humans to re-join the web of life. This will require us to die to an old way of being, which brings me to my last point.

 

This much I know is true: As a vision quest guide and president of the board of a beautiful non-profit organization called Rite of Passage Journeys (information on the back table), I have witnessed the voluntary psychological death and resurrection of many brave people who have subjected themselves to harsh conditions of exposure and fasting, where ego defenses fade and the wisdom of the unconscious emerges. I have seen the power of what happens when we turn our face to the inner reaches of our sacred interior to encounter what Jung called ‘The Self’. Understanding the mysteries of the archetype of the Self is the Holy Grail of depth psychology. It is the regulating principle of our entire psyche and the bridge to the transpersonal realm of the objective psyche, the anima mundi.

 

To me, the most intriguing aspect of the archetype of the Self is its eye. The motif of the Sacred Eye or the ‘Eye of God’ is ubiquitous in world religions. According to the Jungian analyst Edward Edinger, the Sacred Eye is what we encounter when we go looking for the divine in the depths of the unconscious, or when it comes looking for us, usually in times of crisis. This means that we are not alone in the psyche, there is a mysterious sentience looking back at us. This is the source of wisdom that knows our destiny and writes our dreams. You might think that being beheld by another subject within our own psyche would be a wonderful thing, but it is usually accompanied by a violent reaction. As Edinger writes, “The experience of being a known object, being seen by the eye of God, can be a fearsome experience because unconscious contents, as a rule, cannot stand to be observed. They react violently to being known because this destroys or relativizes the autonomy (omnipotence) they enjoy while operating unconsciously.” (Edinger, p. 44) No wonder, then, that to have one’s self-deceptions exposed elicits such violent reactions. And no wonder the lies of Trumpism that serve to smooth over this discomfort, are so well received. The truth of our situation as a species is too much to bear. We experience it as the judgmental wrath of God. And why shouldn’t we? As a species born and raised in the most verdant and lush geological age in the history of the earth, we have squandered our inheritance with voracious appetites that blindly consume the resources freely given to us. Sometimes the psyche projects this sense of judgment on to the afterlife, but I think it is more generative to place it in the here and now.

 

Of course there is another way. If we can learn to sustain this gaze and, like Jacob wrestling with the angel, ask it for a blessing, we may be given insight into our personal calling, our destiny. And we might also be given guidance for our species as a whole. I believe that the psychodynamics of personal rites of passage gives us our best insight into the death and rebirth process of the global initiation that is currently under way. From this point of view, the dark emotions of extinction anxiety, nuclear terror, apocalyptic fantasies, etc. are ‘wake up calls’ or ‘initiatory echoes’ that are leading the human species into a dark night of the collective soul for the purposes of transformation. If we were to personify this dynamic, we would recognize the work of Kali, the dark goddess of transformation who is the destroyer and the creator, the killer of illusion and the champion of liberation, who teaches us that it is the darkness that heals us, not the desperate grasping for splinters of light. (Harvey, p.2) Kali is the goddess who oversees the Great Turning, the move from a death-dealing, late-capitalist, empire model of civilization to one based on sustainability and earth community. This is the great challenge of the next few generations, and it will determine the viability of our species on this finite planet we call Earth.

 

Where do we go from here? I am drawn to a quote from Harvey and Baker’s terrific book Savage Grace: Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, which reads as follows:  Our work as awake human beings at this time then, is to be willing to descend into the dark night of the globe as well as the dark night of the individual soul and to do so in connection with trusted allies.  Going downward and inward is the only way we can open to the mystery of the Self and be guided by it through whatever unfolds.” (Harvey and Baker, p. 11)

 

The future is a blank canvas for our imagination. Who knows what is going to happen? But for me to paint a hopeful or optimistic picture of the future would go against my reading of the signs of our times. If there is any hope, it is a dark hope, one that eschews the bright ego optimism of scientific progressivism, or leaves it to others, in favor of a deepening of the human spirit. Any hope worth having, based on my understanding of depth psychology, leads down and in – into the depths of our own unconscious to do the personal and collective shadow work that cries out to us in the misogyny, prejudice, racism, and narcissism of our own inner Trump. And we can’t go there alone; we must do this with ‘trusted allies’. Initiatives like Communities Rising! and Indivisible, not to mention community dream groups and small talking circles, are essential to the task. But let’s not fall into the fallacy of anthropocentrism and presentism. We also need to call on the Invisibles — our allies in the animal and plant kingdoms, the figures from our dreams, our ancestors and future beings. They all have a stake in the outcome. And the task is to meet and greet and surrender to the Greater Self that always lurks in the dark, waiting to reveal its wisdom to souls desperate to plead their case before that great eye. And the case we need to make is that the higher human capacities of dignity, courage, beauty, compassion, creativity and love make homo sapiens sufficiently worthy to deserve survival and, perhaps one day, to celebrate psychological and spiritual re-birth.

 

These are just some of the lessons that extinction anxiety is trying to teach us in the age of Trumpism.

 

 

 

References

 

Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books), 1988.

 

Edward Edinger, The Creation of Consciousness: Jung’s Myth for Modern Man, (Inner City Books: Toronto), 1984.

 

Fowler, C.W., Maximizing biodiversity, information and sustainability. Biodivers Conserv 17:841-855, 2008.

 

Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker, Savage Grace, Living Resiliently in the Dark Night of the Globe, (iUniverse, Bloomington), 2017.

Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to The Work that Reconnects, (Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers), 2014.

Randy Morris and Walter Enloe, Nagasaki Spirits, Hiroshima Voices: Making Sense of the Nuclear Age, (St. Paul: Hamline University Press), 2003.


Randy Morris PhD. has been a faculty member in the Liberal Studies Program at Antioch University Seattle since 1987. Prior to that, Randy taught kids, K-12, in Atlanta, Georgia and Hiroshima, Japan for ten years. Currently, he teaches adult classes in dreamwork, archetypal and spiritual psychology, history and philosophy of science, ritual process and ceremonial design. Randy has been doing vision quest work since 1990, and has successfully created and facilitated Journeys’ first Ritual Leadership program.

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