The Need For an Enemy–Further Thoughts



I am adding to a previous post  that I wrote before the presidential election. Since March 2016 when I originally posted this, much has happenend on our political landscape. Since our recent presidential election I have been repeatedly struck by the powerful need some have for an enemy. I admit that in the face of nefarious, bigoted, arrogant leadership….(one can go on and on) I have found myself sucked into my own reactive negativity. There is something about evil that can bring out the worst in us if we are not very careful : self-righteousness, false innoncence and a preoccupation with the obvious flaws of others while our failure to see our less obvious flaws can seduce us into a smug sense of superiority. 

Carl Jung said that the most dangerous thing confronting the modern world is not the splitting of the atom but the splitting of the human psyche. Our human psyches have primitive layers. We are, at our most basic level,  animals with a natural fight-flight response. But unlike other animals, we have imagination with which we can create both inner and outer worlds of meaning. One way we make sense of things is through splitting: we divide things into all good or all bad; into “us” and “not us”. In the rapidly increasing complexity of our world, splitting gives us a certain clarity and simplicity–we know just who the enemy is, and we know ourselves to be on the side of absolute truth. This is the appeal of religious and political fundamentalism: if we divide things up into all good and all bad,  we don’t have to wrestle with the complexity in the world and in our own psyches

Of course, we do have real enemies. At this time in history we suffer from the insanity of terrorists whose twisted thinking leaves us vulnerable at any moment to unspeakable acts of cold-blooded violence. There is no reasoning with such deranged opponents. But in the face of such vindictive splitting by our enemies, it can be tempting to resort to self-righteous splitting of our own in which we are blind to our own shadow. Then we need an enemy on whom we can project all our disowned and unwanted aspects. I think that the great task at this point in our individual and collective history is not to get sucked into retaliatory splitting. 

Recently I was wronged by someone. Their behavior was clearly unfair. I found myself hanging on to my sense of righteous indignation like a dog grabs onto a bone. I nursed my anger. But after much internal wrestling,  I came to realize that my anger was poisoning me. This is the challenge we face today: we are confronted with such evil in the world that it is tempting to cast ourselves as completely innocent victims who are justified in doing whatever it takes to keep our real or perceived enemies at bay. I think the great task ahead of us both individual and collectively is to not get sucked into reactivity while also fights no in a clear–eyed and sustained way for major change.

It is the Enemy Within that is the most dangerous to our individual and national psyche.  The old Pogo cartoon speaks as wisely as ever: ” We have met the enemy and the enemy is us”. Let us move forward together with a discerning understanding of how splitting can divide us. We need to find common cause while also being appropriately shrewd in working our way through the system of politics and power. We have a great flight ahead. The more we can move beyond splitting and reactivitym, the more we will be able to sustain the long and possibly difficult struggle to reclaim a less reactive level of national discourse. Some of the tipping point may come from realizing they are being hurt instead of helped by health care reform and “jobs, jobs, jobs”. We must not underestimate the power of  Trump’s w nIt does not lie and logic but in the sense of being read to. He is a master at inflaming culture wars.


Image: Caravagio, “The Taking of Christ”