We Are Multiple
The ultimate cliché: no one’s perfect. We have a culture of celebrity because our modern, literalistic religious imagination will not enable us to access the old Pagan deities, who in their particular ways were perfect. Now, we have (in Caroline Casey’s words) only the “toxic mimic” of that imagination, which once enabled us to make images that reflected our own innate possibilities. So if we want some view of those possibilities we have little choice but to raise up and celebrate an infinite procession of movie stars, pop musicians, athletes and the occasional politician to the level of demi-god.
But this involves the psychological process of projection; we almost literally project a part of ourselves onto these people (or in reality, onto images of these people). We give part of ourselves away to them, and at some point, we need to take those parts back.
When we inevitably discover that our heroes are limited, imperfect or even fraudulent (the list of male celebrities, preachers, gurus and politicians accused of sexual harassment alone is infinite), we react with the disappointed innocence of children. Or we double down, refuse to admit the obvious and defend the hill of lies we’ve created, rather than allowing ourselves to experience the pain of disillusionment. It’s complicated: should Al Franken have resigned from the Senate because of old harassment accusations? Wouldn’t an apology have been sufficient? But most of us find new celebrities to project upon. Stir, cancel culture and repeat. It’s an endless, addictive cycle because it never satisfies the need that produced it.
This kind of disillusionment has its own potential. Taking back those projections, we may well discover that they are us – and welcome them back. Not “part of us” but “us.” But it is long and difficult work:
I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
and it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self,
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify. — D. H. Lawrence
And it may require re-assessing our modern notions of the Self.
I am not I. I am this one
walking beside me whom I do not see,
whom at times I manage to visit,
and whom at other times I forget;
the one who remains silent while I talk,
the one who forgives, sweet, when I hate,
the one who takes a walk when I am indoors,
the one who will remain standing when I die. — Juan Ramon Jimenez
Do we all contain multitudes? Or is it more accurate to say that we are composed of multitudes? For most of its existence since Freud, therapeutic Psychology has been dominated by “Ego Psychology.” Its various permutations use a theoretical and convenient construct called the ego to explain how we make rational decisions to interact with the world. The ego gives identity and is essential for mental health. The goal of psychotherapy is to strengthen and empower the ego so it can function well in society – regardless of the moral quality of that society – to, in Freud’s phrase, “love and work.”
In the 1960s James Hillman formulated Archetypal Psychology as a criticism of Ego Psychology, which includes Jung’s idea of individuation, much of what passes for “Depth Psychology,” and all notions of “self-realization.” The idea of one dominant psychic factor reflects the monotheistic tradition of the western world, with its colonial domination of traditional cultures. Other “mono-words” share the brittleness of one correct way: monopoly, monogamy, monolithic, monarchy, monotonous, monoculture.
Exclusive focus on the practical concerns of the ego fits well in particular with the radical individualism of American culture that has led to a world of constant warfare, environmental degradation, the culture of celebrity, the “Me Generation,” a historical procession of con men, narcissistic politicians, ideas that corporations are people, and a consensus valuation of the needs of the individual over the society.
In psychotherapy, this leads to what Hillman called the “therapeutic culture,” the first assumption of which is that emotional maturity entails a progressive differentiation of self from others, especially family. He argued that American psychology had come to mirror its economics: the heroic, isolated, libertarian ego in a hostile world who looks out only for himself. In our myths, he rises and succeeds entirely on his own merits:
Do you see the complete harmony between central dictatorship, fascism, political callousness, and the self-centeredness of the spiritual point of view?…Economics is our contemporary theology, regardless of how we spend Sunday.
Exclusive focus on the ego, the self (“big” self or “lesser” self), or the light, or any of the ways in which we consciously identify (white, rational, progressive, or even compassionate or peace-loving) as individual or as a national group – each of them – inevitably constellates a shadow voice, often one that would disappear into the selflessness of extreme conformism:
…the idea of surrendering to the fascist mob is the result of the separated self. It’s the old Apollonian ego, aloof and clear, panicked by the Dionysian flow.”
It is also reflects our American form of Protestant religiosity which buttresses the notion that if we fail, it is entirely our own fault, not that of social forces greater than ourselves.
Hillman offered another model, claiming that in polytheistic societies like Ancient Greece, religion reflected the understanding that the soul is inherently multiple. Only a polytheistic psychology takes this into account. Personality is a drama in which “I” participate but may not even be the main character:
I like to imagine a person’s psyche to be like a boardinghouse full of characters. The ones who show up regularly and who habitually follow the house rules may not have met other long-term residents who stay behind closed doors, or who only appear at night. An adequate theory of character must make room for character actors, for the stuntmen and animal handlers, for all the figures who play bit parts and produce unexpected acts.
So to him even the whole range of self-help books with titles such as Gods in Everyman, Goddesses in Every Woman, Awakening the Heroes Within, Healing the Inner Child, Discovering the Inner Mother, Dethroning Your Inner Critic, The Inner Self, The Giant Within, The Therapist Within, etc, though often quite valuable, still represent a “colonialism of the ego” that is entirely analogous to any centralized political power. To Hillman, that ego does not “have” images:
Images are not in the psyche as in a container but are the psyche. In other words, images mirror the psyche just as it is – as constantly imagining.
And those images inevitably demand to be recognized. For a thorough look at the theme of “the return of the repressed”, see Chapter Four of my book. As Jungian Marie-Louise Von Franz wrote, “Nothing in the human psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.” Exactly that happened during the period we know as “the sixties”, which produced a long overdue explosion of under-valued or repressed experiences, value systems and identities (often quite justifiably angry) and led to new emphasis on diversity as opposed to the flattening effect of the old image of a “melting pot.”
In the 1980s the controversial idea of multiple or “split” personalities, or “Dissociative Identity Disorder” received much publicity (we recall that “person” and “personality” derive from “persona,” the mask in Greek Tragedy). Researchers claimed that 90% of people diagnosed with DID were victims of childhood trauma (affecting, they claim, 1.5% of the population), and that it is a response to unbearable life conditions. But their broader perspective is ego psychology; the condition is a “disorder” in which what should be a strong ego has been damaged. Hillman, by contrast, saw pathology itself as a road to the soul.
Is multiplicity a disorder, or is it something natural? Many psychological schools have emerged that acknowledged the multiple nature of the soul, as well as the idea that psychopathology does not reside in the individual, but rather in a disturbed system of family relations. These include Family Systems Theory and Parts Psychology. Ecopsychology goes even further, suggesting that much of our distress stems from our modern loss of connection with the other parts of ourselves (in the broader sense) – the natural world.
Most recently, Your Symphony of Selves: Discover and Understand More of Who We Are, by James Fadiman and Jordan Gruber, summarizes the research and celebrates our multiplicity. They go so far as to argue that
We are multitudes, and the sooner we get comfortable with this realization, the sooner we can get on with the business of forgiving ourselves – that “long difficult repentance” – and others, with all their inconsistencies and contradictions. And this offers the added possibility of welcoming and encouraging others to express the better angels of their natures.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture,
Still, treat each guest honorably –
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the sham, the malice,
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
But what about those racist white Blues cats? Read Part Three here.