The coincidence of opposites at the cultural level

‘Too much of the animal distorts the civilised man; too much civilisation makes sick animals’.

Here Carl Jung was talking about the coincidence of opposites at the cultural and collective level rather than at the individual (though of course it can equally apply to the personal). Not to get too hung up on either the word ‘animal’ or the word ‘civilised’ it is worth noting Jung was referring to how Western thought has developed the conscious and the rational thinking part at the expense of all the other psychological functions and that the result is that there is no proper balance. We become sick because we are not holding the tension of the opposites.

Jung may have been speaking metaphorically but sadly there is a truth to the reality here too. We read of ‘civilisation’ encroaching on the habitats of our fellow creatures so that there is less space and resources, and so animals become stressed competing with humans for food and as animal numbers decrease so extinction threatens. Humans trade animals in tourism or for pets and create both sick animals and sickened humans. Some humans trophy-hunt, killing under the excuse of helping conservation; by their murderous actions simultaneously terrifying and destroying beautiful creatures and their own connection with creation.

We know in a deep part of our being that the answer is to live in harmony. We also know that accommodating our needs with the needs of fellow creatures is the only way to survive. ‘Life is sacred… that of plants and animals [as well as that of our] fellow [humans]’ so said Schweitzer. Thomas Merton understood that there was a deep conflict imposed by our patriarchal and oppressive culture which was the tension between what he called the wilderness mystique and the mystique of exploitation and power in the name of freedom and creativity. Monica Weiss in her book ‘The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton’ quotes Merton (who was using the non-inclusive language of the time):

‘Take away the space, the freshness, the rich spontaneity of a wildly flourishing nature and what will become of the creative pioneer mystique? A pioneer in a suburb is a sick man tormenting himself with projects of virile conquest. In a ghetto he is a policeman shooting every black man who gives him a dirty look…’  Merton understood, as the prophet he was, that racial injustice, fascination with war and our wanton destruction of the planet was all related.

We need an ecological conscience that is ‘an awareness of man’s true place as a dependent member of the biotic community.’ ‘We mistake,’ Merton writes, ‘the artificial value of inert objects, and abstractions for the power of life itself.’

And both Jung and Merton would agree that rather than projecting out the ‘savagery’ within our own psyches onto wild animals, wild landscapes and nature and indeed onto people with whom we feel uncomfortable or different we could do with recognising and acknowledging that projection and owning it within ourselves… another balancing act of holding the tension of the opposites.