The predicament of the individual living in a modern Western society is a strange one. Events that transpire around the world and large-scale societal changes seem to be far beyond the control of any single person. This leaves the individual in a situation where he, because he is unable to affect the course of current events, is left wondering what is happening to the society he lives in. I am one of those individuals.
I live in the small country of Finland. Finland has traditionally been resistant to changes in the outside world, which tend to reach us much later compared to our Western neighbors, and with diminished strength. There are exceptions, however.
Thanks to the wonderful powers of the Internet, events that transpire thousands of miles away can sweep across national borders and oceans in no time at all. The #MeToo movement is a good example. It is also an example of how strange the world has become thanks to the power of social media, not just socially and politically, but psychologically as well.
That a sexual harassment scandal in America can sweep across the Atlantic, mobilize people in a country as far away as ours, and stir up a national debate, clearly shows that seemingly local events can quickly create a cascade of reactions, responses and even real-world effects thousands of miles away.
— Yle News (@ylenews) December 12, 2017
In a way, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and the subsequent sexual harassment scandals which have swept across the Western world in the past few months, are a demonstration of how much the Internet and social media have changed the way we perceive the world. Distraction seems to be a feature of the current condition, rather than a temporary bug. Being swept away by current events is deceitfully easy, and the risk of losing oneself is ever looming.
This is, essentially, what happened to me during the summer and autumn of 2016. I was at the time a master’s student of Comparative Literature at Åbo Akademi Unversity in Turku, and was on my way to getting my Master’s Degree. I was at the time, like so many of us, extremely worried about what was going on in the world politically, and had been ever since the outbreak of the Refugee Crisis in 2015.
It took me a long time to figure out whether I should engage in the war of ideas, and how. I identified with the rather peculiar coalition of conservatives, classical liberals, and cultural libertarians who were doing the best to defend the ideas I myself had grown to believe in: free speech, free inquiry, free exchange of ideas, reason, truth, and all the rest of it.
A few days after the Brexit referendum, I decided to take action. I started a blog with the intention to defend the ideas I believed in, or thought I believed in. My heart was in the right place, and the intention was clear: to defend free speech, to argue for good ideas, and to argue against bad ones. I started writing in my own language, Swedish, with the hope that writing about these subjects would make me feel better, offer me some form of catharsis, and clear my conscience. Now, at least, I could go to sleep knowing I was doing something to change the course of things.
Alas, this was not to be. From a personal point of view, the blog was a disaster. Psychologically, it was tortuous. I was neurotic, anxious, and as I kept writing, increasingly angry. My writing was poor, and nothing seemed to work. The points I was making didn’t feel right, and the arguments I used didn’t feel like they were my own. As a result, I was constantly frustrated, but more importantly, I was constantly worrying over my blog. I found myself going around thinking about whether or not people got the point I was making, and whether or not I had even managed to make one. Every single blog post felt like a failure, especially the political ones.
I also noticed I found it difficult not to constantly keep track of current events. I was constantly on Twitter and Facebook, making arguments, having (more or less) pointless debates, and reading, sharing, and commenting on news articles. I spent hours upon hours on YouTube, watching and sharing political content. I couldn’t even read a book or watch a movie anymore without checking my social media accounts every ten minutes.
During this time, I was suffering from a rather horrendous state of depression. My life seemed empty, meaningless, and completely wasted. I was so depressed that I couldn’t imagine myself having a future, even though I had completed my Master’s thesis on time and was well ahead of most of my fellow students. My grades were excellent as well, and I had a realistic opportunity to pursue an academic career. Nothing in how my life was progressing suggested that I should feel anything else but optimism, yet I felt like my life was over. What had gone wrong?
In our (Western) societies, depression is often seen and described as a sickness, as something that isn’t depended on the depressed person’s way of living, but rather as an unfortunate result of faulty neurochemistry, hereditary factors, childhood abuse, domestic violence, or some combination thereof. Little attention is paid to how the depressed person is living his life, and how he is living his life is affecting his mental state and overall health.
My condition kept deteriorating as I progressed towards the completion of my studies. I realized that the blog wasn’t going anywhere, and I laid it down after a couple of months. But at this point, my life had spiraled out of control. In February 2017, I had what was basically a complete psychological breakdown. I was done. Thankfully, I managed to get some professional help, and started taking antidepressants. More importantly, I had come to the conclusion that life simply couldn’t go on like this, and I was adamant that I would get my life back on track.
As I was going through my psychological crisis, I turned away from politics, and started a process of rigorous introspection. I had been fortunate enough to discover the work of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson through the somewhat bizarre controversy surrounding Bill C-16 in Ontario, Canada, and started working on his Self-Authoring program — an autobiographical writing program designed to help people organize their lives into a comprehensive narrative to help them move forward — the result of which was some 50 pages worth of material about my life up to that point. The work was tortuous and demanding, and took me over a month to complete. But I was determined not to let myself fall into the chaos that had almost destroyed me during the past six months. I was determined to make things right.
Finding the problem
As I was working on the betterment of my mental health, I started analyzing my dreams by using the psychoanalytical ideas of C. G. Jung. His ideas of dream interpretation were extremely useful, and helped me better understand the contents of my unconscious. I started to realize my depressions were not a consequence of something going wrong in my life, or of some temporary neurochemical irregularity that needed to be fixed.
No, my depressions were a consequence of the fact that I was not living the life I was supposed to live. What my brain was trying to tell me — and what I was too stupid, blind, and ignorant to see — was that in the process of immersing myself in the events of the outside world, I had lost myself.
In The Undiscovered Self, Carl G. Jung makes a poignant observation on the predicament of the individual in the modern Western society:
The bigger the crowd the more negligible the individual becomes. But if the individual, over- whelmed by the sense of his own puniness and impotence, should feel that his life has lost its meaning — which, after all, is not identical with public welfare and higher standards of living — then he is already on the road to State slavery and, without knowing or wanting it, has become its proselyte. 1
Now, Jung was obviously writing in the wake of the horrendous state ideologies of Nazi Germany and the USSR, but I found this passage striking because it illuminates the dangers facing the individual in modern society. The person who has lost his sense of meaning, and of his unique individuality, is always at peril of becoming the slave of somebody else’s will. Even worse, this can happen completely unbeknownst to the individual to whom this is happening.
Much like Dr. Peterson today, Jung was greatly concerned with the qualities of the single individual, and his potential for good and evil. He shared this concern with men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Viktor Frankl, both of whom had to suffer terribly in the hands of the totalitarian systems each of them were subjected to — Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, Frankl in the Nazi extermination camps.
What they both had in common – as did Jung, as does Peterson – was the belief that the line between good and evil runs straight through the heart of every single human individual, and that a genuine solution to the evils of the world is an individual one. In The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn writes:
In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within my self the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.2
This struck a chord with me. During the height of my political activity on the Internet and social media, I had been arrogant, rude, and abusive towards the people I saw as my political opponents. Since my life lacked a sense of meaning, I was resentful, and turned my resentment outward, when I should have been looking inward. I thought I was making things better while actively making them worse. This was a terrible, but necessary, insight.
A Way Forward
According to Jung, the solution for the problems of mass political movements is found in the study of the individual’s own past as well as his present, which meant an understanding of the myths and symbols that are at the core of his own culture. In Man and his Symbols, he writes:
The individual is the only reality. The further we move away from the individual toward abstract ideas of Homo sapiens, the more likely we are to fall into error. In these times of social upheaval and rapid change, it is desirable to know much more than we do about the individual human being, for so much depends on his mental and moral qualities.3
This is basically what I have been doing ever since my breakdown almost a year ago. I have been analyzing my dreams, trying to find patterns and themes that can be discerned and rationally comprehended, and used my interpretations to make some necessary changes in my life.
I deleted my Twitter and Instagram accounts, I follow current events by reading a newspaper rather than through social media, and my activity on Facebook is reduced to a minimum. And my phone, which I used to look at almost constantly, can happily stay in my pocket for half an hour without my needing to check up neurotically on what it’s up to, which, rather obviously, is not as much these days. As a result, I’m more focused, balanced, and less resentful than before.
Jung emphasized the importance of mythological and symbolic ideas because he believed they were expressions of deep psychological truths, and a pathway into understanding man’s subconscious psyche. He also believed that the triumph of science at the expense the religious ideas at the heart of Western culture had created a split between his conscious and his subconscious mind:
Separation from his instinctual nature inevitably plunges civilized man into the conflict between conscious and unconscious, spirit and nature, knowledge and faith, a split that becomes pathological the moment his consciousness is no longer able to neglect or suppress his instinctual side.4
The solution to the split within man’s psyche, as proposed by Jung, is the integration of his unconscious mind with his conscious mind. This involves an effort to try to understand the contents of one’s own psyche — as expressed in dreams, fears, hopes, aspirations and so on — because it is the only way to understand who and what one really is. Understanding of one’s own unconscious is also the only way for the individual to become a fully integrated person:
The unconscious is not a demonic monster, but a thing of nature that is perfectly neutral as far as moral sense, aesthetic taste and intellectual judgement go. It is dangerous only when our conscious attitude towards it becomes hopelessly false.5
In his autobiographical work Ecce Homo, Friedrich Nietzsche introduces us to the idea that the goal of a person’s life is not to become, as is commonly advertised in our culture, anything one wants, but to become what one is. Not “who” one is, mind you, but “what.” Nietzsche writes:
That one becomes what one is presupposes that one does not have the remotest idea of what one is. From this point of view even the blunders of life — the temporary sidepaths and wrong turnings, the delays, the ‘modesties,’ the seriousness squandered on tasks which lie outside the task – have their own meaning and value.6
What this seems to suggest is that there is a center, or a central idea, in each of us, and that becoming what one is entails allowing for this central idea, this essence of being to develop and grow as one stumbles forward in life, and that learning through mistakes is a way to finding this core, or essence.
This idea of a core, essence, or central idea, mirrors nicely one of the central concepts of Jungian psychoanalysis, which is the concept of the Self, here defined by one of Jung’s students, M. L. von Frantz:
The Self can be defined as an inner guiding factor that is different from the conscious personality and that can be grasped only through the investigation of one’s own dreams. These show it to be the regulating center that brings about a constant extension and maturing of the personality.7
Becoming what one is in the Nietzschean sense seems to necessitate that one lets one’s own self develop, mature, and grow during one’s lifetime. In Jungian psychology, this process is described as the process of individuation. Becoming a person, an authentic individual, then, is not to bend down to the will of others or to let oneself get caught up in a social or political cause, but to let oneself grow into a strong-minded and psychologically integrated individual, which can only be achieved by the integration of one’s conscious and unconscious minds.
This is certainly what I have been trying to do for the last few months, while also making some changes to my future plans. I’ve had to make sacrifices — such as giving up the comfort and security provided by an academic career in exchange for becoming an independent and free-thinking writer — but if the payback is individual maturation and a full integration of the whole of my psyche, the whole of my being, then surely that is a price worth paying?
Becoming what one is might not be the answer to all the world’s problems; it probably isn’t. Sometimes systems are so corrupt, a society so unjust, and the world so upside down that the only remedy is an organized mass movement. And like the #MeToo movement and the ongoing discussions on sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere in society has shown, things can become so unbearable that mass movements will arise, perhaps necessarily and inevitably.
But this seems not to lessen, but rather emphasize the necessity of strong individuals. As I found out during the time I was writing my blog, if the psyche of the individual isn’t strong enough, it runs the risk of being swept away by the tide, and subject to the massive forces of the outside world, which in any case are too big for any single individual to comprehend.
The way forward, then, seems to be the integration of one own psyche to become whole, so that one is not as susceptible to the sometimes-hectic changes that are going on in the world, but rather like a beacon in a storm, illuminating the world and showing a safe passage through which others can navigate, which, at the end of the day, is all we can hope to accomplish as individuals. It is also the best we can hope to accomplish.
Samuli Laukka is an independent writer from Finland with a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature.
1 Jung, C. G. (1990), The Undiscovered Self, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, p. 10.
2 Solzhenitsyn, Alexandr (1975), The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, vol. II, HarperCollins Publish- ers, New York, NY, p. 615.
3 Jug, C. G. (ed.) (1968), Man and His Symbols, Dell Publishing, p. 45.
4 Jung, C. G. (1990), p. 45.
5 Jung, C. G. (1933), Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Harcourt Publishing Company, New York, NY, p. 17.
6 Nietzsche, Friedrich (1979), Ecce Homo. How One Becomes What One Is, Penguin Publishing Ltd., London, England, p. 34.
7 von Franz, M.-L., ”The Process of Individuation”, in Jung, C. G. (ed.) (1968), p. 163.