When Nations Die
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Before I delve into the topic at hand, I’d like to welcome you to the first installment of
Death Coach, a blog rooted in the idea that death is an integral process of life. This is true on a concrete level, like when carnivores kill other animals for sustenance or when fresh produce grows from soil that has been enriched by the decomposition of dead organic matter. It’s also true on a metaphorical or psychological level. If you want to move in a new direction in life—perhaps pursue a new relationship or a different career—it is difficult to do so unless you are able to fully accept the “death” of the old relationship, the old job, and most importantly, the old identity that came with those roles.
Psychological deaths often occur without an awareness of the new psychological life waiting on the other side. Most people don’t pursue a new relationship unless their current one has fallen apart, and most people don’t appreciate the death of the old relationship until they have spent some time growing past it. When your relationship and your life as you know it falls apart, rarely is there a sense of expansiveness or excitement for what is to come. Since you don’t know what is to come, your only experience in the moment is the loss of what was. Often it feels like everything you hold dear is being ripped from you. You don’t understand why, and the fear and uncertainty about what comes next can rival the kind of fear and uncertainty you might feel at the prospect of literal death. This may sound overly dramatic given the examples of fairly trivial changes, like the new job or relationship. However, if you have ever experienced a profound life transition that forced you to question everything you thought you knew about yourself, then you know this description is no hyperbole.
These kinds of psychological “death” experiences will be the primary perspective by which future Death Coach posts will explore a variety of challenging topics, both societal and individual. I consider it a coaching blog because I strongly believe that if we can learn to suffer our psychological death experiences with dignity and a respect for the necessity of the death process, we can significantly enrich our own lives and the lives of others around us. Leonardo da Vinci captured the idea succinctly: “While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die.”
Now, back to the matter at hand.
If an individual can enhance their life by learning to “die” well when they are undergoing a fundamental change in their identity, can the same principle apply to a group of people bound together as a nation? My argument is yes. Nations, like individuals, have structures of identity—value systems, memories, goals, typical patterns of behavior. And like an individual, if a nation’s identity is to evolve, then a nation must undergo the death of the old identity structure, and the people of that nation will collectively suffer the confusion and disorientation of the death process, not yet knowing what awaits on the other side.
In case it isn’t yet clear, I’m talking about America, its culture wars, and the current breakdown in social cohesion. In my view we are experiencing the death of our nation (the end of our nation as we have known it, not its final demise), and through this experience we are being asked to evolve. No matter which side of the political aisle you stand on, it’s hard to feel like there’s any truth left in the words that once bound us together: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Even if we would like these words to ring true, if we are honest with ourselves it is abundantly clear that, as of late, we are in fact two nations—one red, one blue—with warring worldviews (and worse, warring sets of data and alternative facts to substantiate our increasingly contradictory interpretations of reality) that are driving us more and more frequently toward violent ideological altercations. We all know where this could eventually lead, and whether you take the idea seriously or not, the prospect of a civil war has emerged more than a few times in recent popular discourse.
In times of suffering, it is common to ask why. Why are we so divided as a nation? Why does it suddenly feel as if we are living in a completely different world than those of our opposing political camp?
The tendency is to search for some kind of causal chain. Did the problem start with identity politics? The myth of the self-made man? Trickle-down economics? YouTube algorithms and conspiracy rabbit-holes? Trump and his divisive rhetoric? The willful ignorance of the rightwing to the yawning chasm of wealth inequality? Or was it with Obama’s radicalism and disrespect for American traditions? With the left pushing too far and too fast, becoming too radical, too accusatory, too obsessed with racism and equality of outcome? Was it the social liberations of the 60’s, the dissolution of the traditional nuclear family and the questionable epistemology of postmodernism? Or was it the loss of genuine religiosity in the masses?
Each of these questions evokes typical causal explanations for our current contentious situation, and I’ve read good arguments for placing the blame on any one of them. But to a certain degree I think all such explanations are spurious because they are based on the wrong question.
In his essay, On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche proposed that one of the central challenges for humankind to address is “the meaninglessness of suffering, not the suffering itself.” We should therefore not concern ourselves with why we are suffering, as though we could then fix the problem and eliminate suffering altogether. Rather, we should embrace suffering as a necessary part of life and ask, “to what end?”
To what end are we suffering as a nation? As a country, what are we evolving toward that is demanding the death of what we have until this point called normal?
Like Nietzsche, C. G. Jung was often more concerned with the telos of a psychological experience, or the final outcome that the experience was moving the individual (or society) toward. For Jung, psychological growth meant a movement toward wholeness, a movement that is in almost all cases propelled forward by a conflict of opposites—that is, a conflict between one’s conscious attitude and the compensatory emotions and impulses arising from the unconscious.
Any conscious decision is a judgment which negates one position by preferencing another. For example, if you value “do no harm” and make conscious decisions based on that orientation to life, over time your instinctual capacity for aggression becomes negated—unconscious, underdeveloped, and maladaptive. This sets up a tension of opposites, and the more extreme or one-sided your conscious position of harmlessness becomes, the more ferociously your unconscious capacity for aggression will seek its own expression and undermine your conscious aims. The conflict can cause any number of neurotic symptoms but will also constellate a dialectic between the two positions. If you can suspend judgment and hold the tension of opposites without negating one side in preference of the other, eventually a new attitude will develop out of the tension, a more comprehensive and holistic attitude that transcends and encompasses both sides. In the example provided, the new attitude might look like someone who strives to do no harm yet has enough aggressive potential to recognize when they are being taken advantage of and assert themselves accordingly.
To return to the breakdown of social cohesion in America, we can imagine our “two nations, under different gods” as a tension of opposites occurring within the larger collective American psyche. These opposites are not new. We’ve had a two-party system for quite some time. But to my knowledge the political polarization has never been so extreme. In my memory (and I’m not very old), there was a time when compromises were made across party lines, and in popular discourse there was at least some effort to recognize a kernel of merit in the other side’s position. We are nowhere near that territory now. Not only can we see no merit in the views of the opposing party—we can’t even accept that the people constituting that party are, in fact, sane! To the left, the only imaginable theory of mind for Trump supporters is that they’ve all become delusional, swept up in a mass psychosis, caught under the spell of a con artist. And the right can only comprehend the “insanity” of the left by assuming they are fragile little snowflakes who have become totally deranged, triggered and traumatized by the victory of Trump.
This level of political polarization is to me an indication that the American psyche has become quite neurotic, rife with internal conflict so extreme as to precipitate either a calamitous dive into chaos or a momentous leap forward in evolutionary development. This is of course no judgment on neurosis, for as we have shown, neurotic conflict is a prerequisite for growth, so long as the dialectic between the opposites can be achieved. As a nation, we are hopelessly failing to achieve this dialectic.
So again, to what end are we suffering as a nation? I return to the question with no intention of answering it, only to emphasize the importance of being curious. I don’t think we can know where this process of suffering is leading, and if we could know, then it wouldn’t have the effect of a true psychological death experience, which means it wouldn’t have the necessary gravitas to transform our collective identity into something more whole, something truer to who we really are as a nation, something that can be claimed neither solely by the left nor the by right because it is larger than either.
I would like to see us die well as a nation. I would like to see our conflicts trigger a more authentic dialectic and thereby cultivate growth, higher levels of consciousness, the emergence of new symbols to inspire us, updated value-systems under which we can truly unite. For this to happen collectively, it requires each of us as individuals to take responsibility for our unconscious attitudes that we project upon the political other, to recognize that a better understanding of their position means becoming more whole and developed ourselves. That means we need to stop straw-manning the other side and start steel-manning them.
If you find these ideas appealing, or appalling, feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below. I hope that Death Coach becomes a place that fosters authentic dialogue, a place where together we can try to hold the tension of opposites, recognizing that it is far more likely that the truth of the matter lies beyond the limitations of one perspective, than that one side holds the truth and the other has simply lost their minds.