Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Thin Thread

One of the aspects of science fiction, and especially original series Star Trek, that makes its allegories so vivid is their innocence. The human encounter with strange new worlds is often an innocent encounter with a perennial human dilemma. In this case, our 23rd century spacefarers are reinventing insights of the early 20th century psychologists, particularly Carl Jung. (By the 24th century, Counselor Troi will have caught up on that reading.)

Jung adopted Freud’s theory of the relationship between the human consciousness and the human unconscious, though he modified it and made it a good deal richer. Jung’s idea of the unconscious included primitive ideas and feelings inherited from our animal natures, but a lot more than that.

Specifically he posited something he called the shadow, a part of the unconscious where the unwanted and unapproved parts of ourselves reside. They are usually what we’d call evil, but can also be good qualities that our society forces us to repress, like the impulse to give away all your money to a homeless person who somehow touches your heart at that moment.

As in this Star Trek episode, Jung suggests that our shadows are not only part of us, but necessary parts of us. (A good explanation of Jung’s ideas of the shadow, as well as suggestions for integrating it into our lives, is Robert A. Johnson’s short book --just over a hundred pages-- called Owning Your Own Shadow.)

What Spock and McCoy call “intelligence” in this episode, Jung calls “consciousness.” The human struggle is to integrate as much of the unconsciousness into consciousness as possible, while allowing the unconscious its integrity, and respecting its power. Many of the tools of consciousness Jung talked about—the concepts of projection, denial, and transference---are ways by which the individual monitors the often deceptive workings of the unconsciousness.

For Jung, this process is not just important to each individual---to understand the forces and workings of the unconscious is vital to our survival as societies and perhaps as a species. He was especially insistent about this in the 1950s, in the early atomic age. “The world hangs on a thin thread,” he said in a video interview. “That thread is the human psyche… We are the great danger. The psyche is the great danger.” But we know nothing about it, he added. Nobody gives credit to the idea that the psychic processes of the ordinary human have any importance. But, Jung maintained, the future of mankind depends very much on ordinary humans recognizing the shadow in themselves and in their societies.

Respecting the power of the unconscious and honoring its contribution while conscientiously applying consciousness and intelligence to guide behavior are central to Jung’s psychology and to this Star Trek episode. But recently a new perspective on these matters comes from another discipline---the study of fellow primates in the wild.

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