War Games


A Holy War?
A Holy War?

When the terrorist Osama Bin Laden was killed I wrote a blog post about it. In response, writer Charles Hale commented, “I haven’t thought this one through but it seems to me the world has become one big sporting event where there’s always one winner, one loser, and millions of fans cheering each side on. Further, the terms used to describe sporting events are often militaristic in nature–blitz, warrior mentality, fight to the death, in the trenches, etc.–and the news programs constantly describe the news with sports metaphors. There is little difference, it appears, between nationalistic fervor and sports fanaticism. They seem to be born of the same mentality. When I watch crowds chanting USA USA, I don’t know if I’m watching the US playing Russia in hockey, a political convention or a news event; it seems they are all one and the same now.”
This meaty insight got me thinking about the psychological and spiritual implications of our intense attachments to our teams, clans, countries and religions. What’s this all about? Is there no difference between nationalistic fervor and sports fanaticism? And if not, is this good or bad?
As mammals, humans share the drives for self-preservation and species-preservation with all mammals. Composed of the instincts for nurturance, activity, and sex, these basic motivations create a powerful dependence on our families and a compulsion to protect them and their territory. Loyalty blended with fierce determination to protect and defend is a recipe for survival that has served us and other predatory mammals like wolves, bears and lions exceedingly well.
Jung said humans also have instincts for reflection and creativity. These account not only for our having reached the top of the food chain, but also for a “higher” level of awareness and yearning which has spawned egos, logical thinking, moral codes, justice systems and religions.
We have the capacity to be as aware of our basic drives as we are of our values, and we can use this awareness to benefit everyone’s team. But if our egos cannot see our shadows — our unconscious instincts, emotions, assumptions, and fears — we are easily overwhelmed by them and can unwittingly betray our noblest selves. Then potentially productive conflicts are transformed from games into wars.
Athena:  Goddess of Wisdom and War
Athena: Goddess of Wisdom and War

In the Iliad, Homer describes the first Olympic games which gave both sides in the Trojan War a sabbatical from fighting and a way to channel passions that satisfied everyone’s instincts and cultural values. Insofar as sporting events, especially international ones, serve the same purpose today, they are healthy expressions of our shared humanity that satisfy our needs for belongingness, self-esteem, playfulness, meaning, and so on. But if they are only temporary distractions from shadow possession, there’s still much work to be done.
Homer says that Ares, the hot-tempered and passionate God of War, supported Troy. However, the Greeks won the war because they listened to Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom who was a level-headed strategist and counselor. This is a metaphor for the victory of conscious choice over unconscious compulsion. But just how conscious and wise was Athena? Is winning the highest good? Does it prove our virtue and worth or does it merely appease our shadow? We are capable of setting a higher goal than winning the game: the goal of universal justice, cooperation, peace, and love. In real-life war games we need to be very clear about our motivation. Which goal do we serve?
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0 Responses

  1. Thank you very much for your insights, Jean. I liked your examples from ancient Greek literature, which goes to show a point Jung liked to stress: that we’re all really the same. As far as the games are concerned, maybe it’s not so bad that sports are like war, as long as we the redemption of *awareness* – again something that Jung stressed. As Homer recognized, aggressiveness is a natural part of the human psyche and has to be channelled wisely, preferably in ways that leave no one dead. Personally, I confess that a violent videogame now and then does my soul good.
    Again, thanks for the writing

    1. You’re very welcome, Wael. It’s truly my pleasure. Yes, the gods these archetypes represent dwell within each of us.
      I agree that awareness is the key. When my son was a young teen we were watching a dramatization of the trial and crimes of a real-life serial killer on television and when a violent scene came on he left the room. When I asked him what the difference was between this and all the other violence he didn’t seem to mind in his video games and in movies and television he said, “This really happened.” He was aware of the difference between fantasy and reality and whereas he, like most of us found the fantasy violence cathartic, the reality was just too painful.
      Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment,

  2. Jeanie,
    It seems to me that the gods still take turns possessing and dis-possessing us, provoking us from within to commit horrible acts and then wringing us out with guilt and shame. Our frail and tenuous ego cannot withstand the passion and fury of the archetypes and the call to return to the center of the Self falls on fewer ears every year.
    Violence is easy and revenge satisfying. Peace is difficult and forgiveness unsatisfying. War makes perfect sense in the short-term. No one has the patience to see wisdom play itself out over the long-term.
    Nonetheless: the Golden Age of Humanity is just as close at hand as is continued war, poverty, and environmental degradation—both are equally matters of intention, measured out in conscious and consistent decisions from one mind-moment to the next.
    “Which goal do we serve?”
    And what will it take before there is a conscious “We” again?
    We are not bound by the precedents of the past. There has never before existed this instantaneous internet of worldwide communication before, for instance. There are many wild cards in this deck. Hope is as hopeless as fear: committing to hypotheticals is always dangerous. Perhaps we are not so much discovering our true self as creating it.
    May we find the path of meaning and belonging at just the right time!
    All the Best, with much Gratitude for your special kind of inner alchemy!

    1. Dear William,
      I love your point about violence and revenge being easy and peace and forgiveness difficult. Following the rule of the gods — whether they be the gods of instinct or the gods of religions which condone our need for vengeance and retribution — requires no personal responsibility, mindfulness, choice, or self-restraint. What a comfort that is to frail egos.
      I also love your point that the Golden Age of Humanity is just as close at hand as the Dark Age of Kali within which we dwell now and that we get to choose which one we want to create. People tend to feel so helpless in the face of the global forces that contribute to war and poverty. I wonder how many of us truly understand that our personal efforts to become more conscious have the power to make all the difference? What more can any of us do than send out this message over and over again with the help of our own “special kind of inner alchemy?”
      Sending you my gratitude for your own version of this powerful force for good.
      Love, Jeanie

  3. Jeanie,
    Again, I leave your blog better, wiser and more educated for having read it. Your writing, the comments, and your responses all demonstrate great wisdom, compassion and self-understanding, human traits necessary to resolve our most pressing problems. Sadly, however, these traits are often absent, our human behavior suffers, and our world spirals out of control.
    Thank you for taking the time to write on this incredibly compelling subject.

    1. Charlie,
      Thank you for inspiring this piece and for your very kind words about my treatment of this topic. As you know from your own wonderful blog,) the address to which can be found on my blogroll), the comments we bloggers receive from readers makes it all worthwhile.
      Hoping to be part of the solution,

  4. We recently had occasion to watch a PBS broadcast of “Journey of the Universe”, which discusses just how far the science of human beings has come: http://youtu.be/665rLZ0_HjU The distinction made between us and other living beings is the significance of what they call “symbolic consciousness”.
    Jungian archetypes are examples of symbols representing certain truths about us, but they are by no means the only ones, of course. The very words in this response are symbols of consciousness I wish to convey, but there is not another creature in the known universe that truly relates to these symbols, and none that can write their own novel.
    Here, without seeing a picture, each reader relates to PBS, their television set, what a movie is, what a movie contains, what science is and what it means to be a human being—and that’s only the first sentence.
    What the program emphasizes is that we are a part of an inexorable process of organization, which began 13.7 billion years ago. By realizing we are the only creatures with “symbolic consciousness”, we have the potential to understand how symbolism drives our decisions.
    I can imagine a time when it won’t be good enough to have leaders who harangue interminably for a position that benefits only a few; or which subjugates members of a different interest group. We have moved from a time when an elected official represented the interests of all of his constituents to a time when the followers of the loser in an election just go unrepresented. That is not good enough.
    This morning I heard a story that President Ronald Reagan asked of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, “If we were being invaded by aliens, we would certainly work together, wouldn’t we?” Gorbachev conceded the point, which was one of the starting points of better understanding between our two countries. President Reagan was using the symbol of a non-existent enemy to convey a truth contained in his consciousness—we all have common interests.
    As I think back to my visits to Greece and Turkey, I find it hard to believe that they ever had anything to fight about really. And yet they still do! Why? Yes, many from both sides will come up with dozens of reasons, all of which ignore one important truth. The only way to end a feud (and this one dates back more than 3,000 years) is to agree to stop fighting, and move into the future with regret for and wisdom from what came before, but hope for a future based on common humanity.
    Animals that fight for territory cannot do that. They don’t know when they might have to fight. But, when they know the time has come, they fight, not realizing there are other alternatives. They lack the “symbolic consciousness” of human beings.
    Over the next century, humans will learn more about how to examine our motivations, and the expected outcomes with greater clarity. We will understand that we will never dominate the way other human beings worship—to try would be to create more carnage than any society can tolerate. Earlier humans might have thought such a thing was possible, but we now know that it is not—and therefore, it is not worth the cost of even trying. We can convey this idea to our fellow human beings symbolically, without ever meeting them.
    Surely there are ideas that cannot be accepted in society. Murder is an example, as is spousal abuse. But even those ideas are debated through our “symbolic consciousness,” which allows us to come to conclusions as a species, without having to dominate our fellow human beings. Eventually consensus arises about what is right and what is wrong. Even headhunters and cannibals can see that there is a better way of living in society, and that doesn’t have to be because the neighboring tribe tastes bad or resists dying.
    Ares had his place in the development of humanity, and I’m sure there will continue to be wars for the foreseeable future. But ultimately, I believe, Athena will reign supreme, because we live on a very small planet far from any alternative home. The wisdom in President Reagan’s challenge to Premier Gorbachev will reign supreme. Athena was surely in the room that day, alive and well in the psyches of both men. She is with all of us still!

  5. Skip,
    This is a clear and beautiful summation of a complex and crucial issue. Thank you for sharing it. Athena and Ares are, indeed, both with us, but I too believe that our capacity for symbolic consciousness, with its way of showing us our connections to each other, will ultimately prevail. May it be so. Thank you for what you do to further this goal.
    My best,

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