Hope and Fear

Paul Valery captured our problem in one line: "We hope vaguely, but dread precisely."

Hope and Fear 

by Donald Williams
We have embarked on a new millennium like sailors headed west with a fifteenth century map showing only sea dragons surrounded by polluted blue water. Columbus at least sailed with dreams of a new world. Most of us simply hope to hold onto some of what many of us enjoy—work, close friends, cars and homes, some financial security, patches of uncluttered blue sky, national parks, and some precious species we don't want to lose. We do not have, however, an inspiring story of a desirable and credible future to lead us forward.

Paul Valery captured our problem in one line: "We hope vaguely, but dread precisely." We know exactly what we fear, whether it's divorce, economic loss, loneliness, death, or global losses.

Collectively, we are now learning to fear global warming, melting polar icecaps, disruptive climate changes, deforestation, topsoil erosion, ozone depletion, overpopulation, poverty, famine, war, and ever more pollution of every kind. These fears define the future we want to avoid but we experience it now— whether as images, thoughts, and feelings, or as our first wide awake brush with global disasters: urban crowding, inadequate water, pollution of all kinds, and AIDS. Our fears construct an emotional and intellectual atmosphere, an atmosphere that affects us as profoundly as the literal urban pollution we inhale. These fears constrict our capacity to think freely about the future we desire and want to create. We don't know exactly what to hope for or believe in.

We face a new human condition: For the first time in our history, the future may—and should—influence the present as profoundly as we know that the past influences the present. We foresee, for example, the earth warming up considerably during the next fifty years, and we start to think seriously about deforestation in Brazil, coal burning in China, and auto emissions at home. The distant future—distant because we will not be around to see it—insists that we respond in our lifetimes to gradual tragedies, tragedies that are sometimes invisible or only probable. We struggle today, for instance, with the necessity to store radioactive waste securely for 10,000 years. We know the half life of radioactive elements, the hazards of radiation poisoning, and the destructive powers of nuclear weapons—all precisely—but we don't know much about creating peace or about keeping peace alive. Suppose we learn to hope as precisely and intelligently as we now fear. Suppose we focus our psychological resources on the future without the hubris of revolutionary politics.

Jung invariably watched the psyche for glimpses of unconscious creativity and for renewal and transformation. His psychology was forever forward-looking, and he repeatedly emphasized the role of the human psyche in the fate of the earth. We have a psychological heritage in Jungian psychology that prepares us well to see and cultivate a new psychological attitude. Jung's work is there to help us one day weave stories of a credible and desirable future, a future to inspire us. We need a vivid dream of a continuous future, a future that does not die for want of air and water and food.

Our insights about the future challenge us to articulate new psychological theories and practices. We need a "royal road" that will enhance our understanding of the futures we foresee and create just as we needed dreams, psychological theories, and interpretive skills to grasp the influence of the past on the present. The same psychological practices that many of us pursue each day may help us to educate our hearts and author intelligent stories about the world we want to create.

Global warming and the distant future, of course, are a big jump from the intimate subjects of psychoanalysis—love, ambition, fear, guilt, betrayal, trauma, abandonment. The future of the world around us isn't currently the stuff of analysis. The fears and hopes analysands discuss are usually more personal. People in analysis rarely sit or recline to talk anxiously about the greenhouse effect or passionately about alternative sources of energy. Analysts and therapists still assume that only personal matters belong in analysis. I take it personally, however, when I think of my son and all of our children growing up in a hot, overpopulated, polluted, and dangerous world. These subjects—nuclear weapons, global warming, pollution, the end of nature, and the rest—are very personal at the core.

The aim of analysis isn't narcissistic self-gratification that bends the world to our needs. As we know quite well, narcissism is a psychological disorder, not a therapeutic aim. Psychoanalysis strives for self-knowledge, change, and the educated respect of ourselves and others. With healthy, intelligent self-regard, I hope that we can respectfully engage others and the world. I think we can learn to feel and think as strongly and clearly—precisely—about the future as we do now about our desires, relationships, ambitions, and cares. In analysis we pour over intimate details of the past and present, and we take them very seriously. We can do the same with the future. We can educate ourselves about our effect upon the future and the future's effect upon us.

Whether or not the analyst's office will become a place for reflecting on the future, we have at least learned things there that will equip us for this task. We have learned to recognize how and why we project, introject, resist, defend, and repeat the past. We have learned to respect ourselves, to take responsibility for our choices, to empathize, to change, to claim the authorship for our own lives, and to tell original stories. This knowledge and these skills can help us navigate the future.

Psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and the millions of people who enter therapy contribute something else to the future. Without intending to do so, I believe that they foster a new ideal of character—the responsive character. In session after session, analysts and therapists bestow precious value on our capacity to know ourselves and to respond emotionally and intelligently to the world around us. We learn to speak up with our hard-won confidence and authority. We learn to listen well. The responsive personality is a new ideal. The responsiveness we cultivate, in and out of analysis, becomes more valuable as we increasingly realize how tightly connected and complex our small earth is. I hope that the "responsive self" will become as real to us as the "tragic self," the "guilty self," or the "empty self."

The future we as yet only imagine and the intimate worlds we know are not as far apart as they may seem—they are all stories. Our stories shape us and the world itself, and as therapists, we are all telling, examining, revising, and retelling stories. We watch, as Jung did, for new, durable stories to make us whole. I think Jungian psychology can help us toward new stories that will be responsive to a changing climate and changing world.

© Donald Williams 1998. Revised 2005.

E-mail :  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.