I would like to tell you a brief story about a conversation I had, many lives ago, with a female clergy of the United Church of Canada. The prompting issue was a rambling question in my mind about whether or not to remain in the “clergy stream” in the Anglican church or consider switching to the United Church. The woman was then a supervisor of mine at the Toronto Institute of Human Relations, a non-denominational, non-profit counselling-training institute. She knew about my family of origin, including a history of child abuse, a history her own biography shared.
We were, if you like, ‘coming from a similar, if different, place. And it was her reflection that has stuck over the ensuing decades. “John, one of the primary differences between the two institutions is that, in an episcopate, one always knows where the power resides and from where the decisions come. In our church, on the other hand, based as it is on the extensive reliance on committees, one is never sure where the power resides and who is taking responsibility for the decisions made. As abused, we might have a need to know and to identify the power locus. I would recommend you stay where you are.”
The story evokes a moment of new insight for me, coming as it did originally, from a trusted, reflective, detached, professional source. She had nothing to gain or lose in her honest response. She cared not a whit whether I stayed in the ‘Anglican’ path or switched to United. Underlying her response, although not identified or discussed at the time, could have been some experience of hers that provoked her response. The mere fact that she ‘identified’ with my experience however, that moment of indelible imprinting on our memory, underlined the experience as unforgettable for me.
I recount that story as a way of opening the door to my own reflection on one aspect of the current political ethos, primarily in the U.S. but also in other nations, where the enmeshment of a large segment of the population with what can only be regarded as a tyrant begs many questions. Why do ordinary, so-called normal people, of all backgrounds, educations, careers, social and political status, religious affiliations and ethnicities “fall” into the orbit/ambit/sway/arms/charisma of a magnetic person/leader?
Having observed, and reported on highly intelligent, highly articulate, and obviously courageous political operatives, none of whom sought or required obsequiousness, sycophancy, a cult of popularity or even adulation from their electorate, and also having sat in pews in front of at least one clergy so obsessed with his own “religiosity/piety/sanctimony” and his lure of ordinary men into his
‘ken’, I have pondered this question for decades. Clearly, there is no single answer, no ideological, psychological, spiritual or ethical explanation for the dynamic of the human search for power.
History has taken note of a long list of powerful (mostly) men, whose feats and falls comprise much of the western narrative. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, (September, 2004), Michael Maccoby writes:
(I)n 30 years of experience as a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, and management consultant, I have found that followers are as powerfully driven to follow as leaders are to lead. Followers’ motivations fall into two categories—rational and irrational. The rational ones are conscious and therefore well known. They have to do with our hopes of gaining money, status power, or entry into a meaningful enterprise by following a great leader—and our fears that we will miss out if we don’t. More influential, much of the time, are the irrational motivations that lie outside the realm of our awareness and, therefore beyond our ability to control them. For the most part, these motivations arise from the powerful images and emotions in our unconscious that we project onto our relationships with leaders. (hbr.org)
Whether we ‘project’ our highest aspirations or our deepest fears and anxieties onto a leader, many of these projections emerge from our early lives. A father that could never be satisfied or pleased, a mother who continually berated a child, or worse, they all leave deep emotional markings of which we become familiar only if and when the “wound” is once again ‘triggered’ by some person, event, statement or picture that ‘brings the unconscious memory/experience back to consciousness.
At its best, transference if the emotional glue that binds people to a leader. Employees in the grip of positive transference see their leader as better than she really is—smarter, nicer, more charismatic. They tend to give that person the benefit fo the doubt and take on more risk at her request than they otherwise would….But without a strong grounding in reality, leaders can very easily become undone by their followers’ positive transferential projections. At the extreme, such followers will create a myth that bears no relation to fact….The transference dynamic is most likely to get out of control, during periods of organizational stress. In such situations, followers tend to be more dominated by irrational feelings—in particular the need for praise and protection from all-powerful parents. (hbr.org, op. cit.)
Supplementing what can be categorized as a psychoanalytical perspective, originating from Freud, there is also another more recent perspective from Erich Fromm, a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher and democratic socialist. A German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in the U.S., Fromm ‘criticized Freud’s dualistic thinking, the struggles between two poles, as narrow and limiting.’ (Wikipedia). Nevertheless, Fromm himself deploys an ‘either-or’ concept in his diagnosis of freedom as a “‘diamagnetic force’—by one pole, it compels us to escape to it, which Fromm calls positive freedom; by the other, it drives us to escape from it, a manifestation of negative freedom. While modern civilization has liberated human beings in a number of practical ways and has furnished us with various positive freedoms, its psychological impacts has given rise to an epidemic of negative freedom. (Maria Popova, brainpickings.org/2018)
Popova elicits Fromm’s words from Escape from Freedom:
Modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of realization of his individual self; that is, the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities. Freedom, though it has brought him independence and rationality, has made him isolated and, thereby anxious and powerless. This isolation is unbearable and the alternatives he is confronted with are either to escape from the burden of his freedom into new dependencies and submission, or to advance to the full realization of positive freedom which is based upon the uniqueness and individuality of man…..and this in a forward written half a century after publication of the book:
Modern man still is anxious and tempted to surrender his freedom to dictators of all kinds, or to lose it by transforming himself into a small cog in the machine, well fed, and well clothed, yet not a free man but an automaton….The crucial difficulty with which we are confronted lies in the fact that the development of man’s (including both genders) intellectual capacities has far outstripped the development of his emotions. Man’s brain lives in the twentieth century; the heart of most men lives still in the Stone Age. The majority of men have not yet acquired the maturity to be independent, to be rational, to be objective. They need myths, and idols to endure the fact that man is all by himself, that there is no authority which gives meaning to life except man himself. Man repressed the irrational passions of destructiveness, hate, envy, revenge; he worships power, money, the sovereign state, the nation; while he pays lip service to the teachings of the great spiritual leaders of the human race, those of Buddha, the prophets, Socrates, Jesus, Mohammed—he has transformed these teachings into a jungle of superstition and idol-worship…
To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death. This relatedness to others is not identical with physical contact. An individual may be alone in a physical sense for many years and yet he may be related to ideas, values or at least social patterns that give him a feeling of communion and ‘belonging. On the other hand, he may live among people and yet be overcome with an utter feeling of isolation, the outcome of which, if it transcends a certain limit, is the state of insanity which schizophrenic disturbances represent. This lack of relatedness to values, symbols, patterns, we may call moral aloneness and state that moral aloneness is a intolerable as the physical aloneness, or rather than physical aloneness becomes unbearable only if it implies also moral aloneness….Religion and nationalism, as well as any custom and any belief however absurd and degrading, if it only connects the individual with others are refuges from what man most dreads: isolation.
While much ink has been spilled on the question of how the digital technology, while appearing to ‘connect’ us to each other, everywhere and all the time, has disclosed a a deep and persistent consciousness of isolation, prior to, yet certainly exaggerated and inflated by, this pandemic.
Projection/transference, compounded by severe isolation could well be cornerstones of our current wave of insurgent crowds fawning over the image of a ‘hero’, whether that hero is a human being (as in political leader suctioned to, and seduced by a false narrative, and also suctioning and seducing his ‘cult’ to that same false narrative) or a form of deity. And here we have to wade into the waters of theology and the comparison between a ‘personal god’ or an impersonal god.
Karen Armstrong, in her brilliant work, A History of God, The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Random House, New York, 1993, posits the dilemma this way:
The problem of predestination and free will…indicates a central difficulty in the idea of a personal God. An impersonal God, such as Brahman (Hindu) can more easily be said to exist beyond ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ which are regarded as masks of the inscrutable divinity. But a God who is in some mysterious way a person and who takes an active part in human history lays himself open to criticism. It is all too easy to make this ‘God’ a larger-than-life tyrant of judge and make ‘him’ fulfill our expectations. We can turn ‘God’ into a Republican or a socialist, a racist or a revolutionary according to our personal views. The danger of this has led some to see a personal God as an unreligious idea, because it simply embeds us in our own prejudice and makes our human ideas absolute. (p. 164)
Religious fundamentalism depends on a personal god, whether or not those espousing such a faith are fully conscious of their choice and their participation in that choice. And most clerics who themselves rely on the continuing dedication of their parish are unlikely to confront such a faith given that its exposure could have a serious emotional impact on the ‘believer’. The convergence of both religious fundamentalism and political tyranny and dictatorships, is a potentially explosive, especially if undiagnosed and acknowledged, cannister of political and cultural conflict.
Those charged with the responsibility to preserve social and political peace, likely unaware of the complexities and implications of both psychology and religion, are left virtually disarmed in their efforts to evolve policies and practices that take into account the depth of despair (too often diagnosed as hunger, poverty, disease and hopelessness) which includes something called loneliness and isolation that seems to fail to be identified as real, authentic and thereby demanding attention.
So long as we cling to a sociological, demographic and statistical depiction of the cultural imperatives to which we must attend, we will continue to fail to address the most basic and most insidious of our personal, social, political and spiritual needs. Even the mere discovery and potential treatment of transference, while necessary, will not attend to the deeper historical vein of alienation, isolation, separation and aloneness.
And while individuals each have a responsibility to attend to a portion of this isolation, the society, the collective, the public square must neither ignore nor deny its collective responsibility. Throwing money at isolation, however, as we do to most of our “problems” is no solution. Band-aids, as social policy, are merely stop-gap, impermanent fixes that merely ameliorate the situation, until the next election.
We not only share a common human biology, ecosphere, and globalism; we also share a common and inescapable human spirituality which demands nurture.
Are we ready even to acknowledge our need?