“Man is a mystery. It needs to be unravelled, and if you spend your whole life unravelling it, don’t say that you’ve wasted time. I am studying that mystery because I want to be a human being.” ~ Fyodr Dostoevsky
As a trauma therapist in the public and private sectors of NYC for over three decades, I’ve served as a witness to thousands of stories replete with human atrocity. As a complex trauma survivor, I am also personally aware of the decimation caused by the sadistic cruelty of morally depraved caregivers. The crippling symptoms and destructive behavior of those seeking treatment evidence the devastation incurred. Miraculously, just as evident is the way in which survivors reach for beauty, seek out meaning, and strive, in spite of all odds to actualize potentials.
Those who have been on the receiving end of merciless victimization are cognizant of what a formidable force human evil is. Equally as powerful and critical to transcending evil’s damaging impact, is the opposing force of virtue. Moreover, it is the existence of both evil and virtue that sustains the existence of the other as all things in life are qualified by their opposite. This pre-Socratic principle known as enantiodromia was referenced by the father of psychoanalysis Carl Jung as representative of how the innermost self struggles with opposite extremes.
The hedonist who is mired in shame, the martyr who is plagued by rage, the predator who fears victimization. It is this unbearable internal psychic tension that compels us to transcend opposites so as to discover higher possibilities that afford greater freedom and greater consciousness.
The higher possibility or the reconciliation of opposites, embodies the needs of each opposing side. Accordingly, to understand how to champion all that embodies the numinous aspects of humanity we have to be willing to engage with that which expresses all that is corrupt and inhumane.
Yet compelled by our instinct for self-preservation we deny the existence of evil, often preferring to construct a reality that offers an illusory sense of safety and predictability. Our defenses kick in to limit the intrusion of information or thinking which calls into question our basic trust in the order and structure of our world. Essentially, we deny that which causes us distress. Adhering to this stance impedes significant transformation.
Accordingly, I feel compelled to highlight through my work and my writings what is threatening, to demythologize evil so that we can face its potential within ourselves and others, and if possible make more elevated life affirming choices.
Jung referred to the repressed, ‘dark’, unenlightened parts of the psyche as the shadow. How we manage our shadow energy can either liberate us or lead us down a path of destruction that harms oneself and others.
Conscious awareness of our lower impulses and malevolent proclivities can offer us the agency to exercise containment and meaningful expression. Resisting over-identification with virtuous or malevolent polarizations is a courageous and daunting task. It is much more challenging as well as potentially transformative to embrace both sides simultaneously.
From this place of holding the tension of opposites conscious integration, meaning psychological maturity can occur.
Likening the quest for wholeness to alchemy, Jung cited the terrifying primordial process of calcination as bringing one’s shadow into conscious awareness for the purpose of integration. Alchemy pertains to the process of transmuting base metals to silver or gold. The search for the ‘gold’ in each person was a fundamental focus of Jung’s work. In fact, when analogizing the alchemical dictum,“in filth it shall be found,” Jung was suggesting that it is through assimilating the shadow that we discover the gold within.
As Jung imparted, “To confront a person with their shadow is to show them their own light.”
When we meet our darkness it humanizes us and allows us to actualize our buried potentials. Facing our darkness affords us the ability to diffuse our projections and free ourselves of guilt and shame. It produces the ashes from the calcination process, signifying that the inauthentic false aspects of the self have been broken down and burned away. Exhuming the primal energy of the unconscious helps to dissolve rigidity and judgment. We become more fluid and cleansed. We become more real.
In accordance with the principle of enantiodromia the late Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky conveyed in his story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, that good cannot exist without evil or suffering. In this story, the narrator falls asleep and has a dream. In this dream, he is taken to Paradise, a mirror image of our earth, but an earth that knew no evil, no suffering. As he arrives, he realizes that he never ceased loving his old earth, and does not want this parallel. He notices that there is no suffering on this “other earth.” He says that on the “old earth,”
“we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love. I want suffering in order to love. I long, I thirst, this very instant, to kiss with tears the earth that I have left, and I don’t want, I won’t accept life on any other!”
Dostoyevsky goes on to say that man’s road to salvation must be through suffering. In his writings, he presented suffering as always lighted by the spark of God. As much as I appreciate Dostoyevsky’s wisdom I am personally less concerned with abstract ideas about God’s agenda and more concerned with how we as humans can brave a world that is a lonely, painful, frightening place for so many.
To collectively face how faith has been shattered by the suffering in the world we need to examine the vast terrain of human nature, inclusive of the brutal aspects of our being. We need to be willing to recognize how the individual and collective disowning, rationalizing and minimizing of human evil has led not just to individual corruption, but also to dire global consequences.
Corporatized medicine and class warfare have dwarfed basic decency, with the medical cartel frothing at the mouth, eager to capitalize from Covid-19 and any other sundry disease or disorder. Bailouts and surging the stock market takes precedence over the needs of the working class. Stock market manipulation and neo-feudalism is giving rise to permanent serf and ruling elite classes. Governmental looting of pensions and savings has begun, devastating retirees and their surviving spouses, while corporate moguls earned 287x more in 2018 than the average wage earner.
Famines and humanitarian disasters and violations of international law infiltrate the globe. Bombing raids and regime changes are routine. Tragically humanity’s deleterious impact on plant and animal species has led to an acceleration with extinction. Additionally, deforestation and the rampant destruction of natural resources is heading us towards ecological collapse. These irreversible losses could contribute to the collapse of human civilization.
Clearly, the ravages of the malevolent side of human nature are extensive. Acquiring a basic psychological comprehension of human evil is imperative in order for any of this to make a modicum of sense.
Physicist and psychoanalyst Ian Hughes wrote, “A small proportion of people who suffer from psychologically abnormal personalities have, throughout history, had an immeasurable detrimental impact on our societies, our politics and our world. Enabled by their ruthlessness to readily acquire positions of power, they have long dominated the psychologically normal majority of the world’s population.”
Indeed, facing the darkness within our humanity entails the acknowledgment of a measure for malignant pathological evil ascribed to psychopaths. It is also imperative to explore what psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski termed ‘pathocracy’; institutional and government systems comprised of high ranking officials presenting with psychopathic traits.
Summarily, by bringing the reality of evil’s influence into consciousness the impact of the dark side of humanity can be confronted. Those victimized can assimilate what was done to them. Lastly, those who are psychotherapists have the ethical responsibility to embody the consciousness to truly recognize evil, refuse complicity and be reliable instruments of helping others heal from evil’s wreckage.