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Winter 2021-2022 edition:
"We Must Disenthrall Ourselves"
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I began work on the essay for this newsletter some time ago, then had to put it on the back burner while I turned my attention to other matters. As it turns out, that delay may have been in the service of synchronicity, pushing the release date into Black History Month. Starting with an historian's use of a quote from Abraham Lincoln, the essay looks at connections between slavery (on several levels), the spell of our national myth, and the personal work that takes place in Jungian psychotherapy. Like many who have benefited (often unconsciously) from the privileges of being white, I find such discussions, such reflection, to be uncomfortable...but essential. I hold out humble hope that my musings may contribute in some small ways to that larger conversation.
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Reflections: “We Must Disenthrall Ourselves"
So often, the personal is universal and the universal is personal. By integrating a discerning and imaginative eye with an openness to thinking on several levels at the same time, we can see the connections between psyche and politics, between the micro and the macro, between the wounds in our individual lives and those in the wider world.
Harvard historian Jill Lepore begins her 900-page book These Truths: A History of the United States with an epigraph, an 1862 quote from Abraham Lincoln: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Upon reading Lincoln’s words, I began thinking about how his imperative to “disenthrall” still applies to our country and to what happens in psychotherapy.
‘Enthrall’ means both “to enslave” and “to be spellbound.” And so to “dis-enthrall” as Lincoln counseled would be to end the institution of slavery. It would also mean breaking the spell of a national myth that was not, in fact, true, to move from a country that trumpeted itself as a paragon of freedom and virtue to one that acknowledges and roots out the oppressive slavery and discrimination that has been buried in our national shadow from the beginning.
And—what is true at the collective level is also true of us as individuals.
Every day, I work to help “disenthrall” clients, to help them see the ways they are still enslaved by old psychological wounds, and the ways they are still under a kind of spell.
The wounds that enslave us may include buried grief from the pain of relationships that ended badly, or the disappointment of a career that has come to feel soul-killing, or the cumulative weariness that comes from trying to cope with the multiple stressors of everyday life (especially during these volatile times), or even unprocessed trauma from childhood, including the experience of cultural or racial discrimination across generations.
The spell that we are under is that of the ego, the part of our psyche which thinks that it “knows,” which thinks that it sees and can manage, but is then puzzled when life doesn’t unfold as we thought it would. Breaking that spell involves learning to be still, to pay attention, to see the signs (often rendered in the language of symbol, metaphor, or image), to listen for the subtle promptings of the soul, with its wider and deeper perspective and its wise counsel. Psychotherapy can offer support and insight as we summon the courage and persistence to break the spell and free ourselves from the ways we are enslaved by myths, by old stories that do not serve us well.
Will we have the courage to “disenthrall” ourselves? Jung wrote that “when we heal the individual, we heal the collective.” Watching anniversary coverage of the January 6, 2021 violent siege of the U.S. Capitol, an assault on free elections and on democracy itself, I found myself wondering: What buried wounds would those individuals have to be carrying to behave like that? And what happens when such wounded individuals multiply into “the madness of the crowd”? How can we facilitate the healing of individuals in ways that fulfill Jung’s promise of healing the collective? These are questions I feel called to ask every day in my work as a psychotherapist. As Japanese scholar Keiji Nishitani once observed: “‘Illuminating insight’ does not stop at mere contemplation. It is integrated with the deliverance of all beings in time from the universal suffering of the world.”