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Myth and National Trauma

THE SYMBOLIC LIFE (Winter 2001)


Amidst the tremendous tragedy of the airplane assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon most of us are still in a daze as we seek to move forward with our lives amidst the conflict in Afghanistan and fears of terrorism locally. Symbolically we have experienced a national trauma of mythic proportions. The dark side of our collective psychic life has erupted in a powerful and disturbing way.

Most of us experience such events through the sensibilities of our deepest personal traumas. As we listen to ourselves and others speak, it often seems like are worst fears and most painful experiences are being relived all over again. Part of the challenge of dealing with this magnitude of collective trauma is working further on the personal ones that we each might be reliving.

Beyond this we face the challenge of understanding the magnitude of the events of September 11th and their powerful archetypal nature. What was enacted has ironically been alive in the collective imagination prior to this date. News programs have show a flight simulator produced by Microsoft that allowed one to visualize oneself piloting a plane into the World Trade Center. Similarly a rap album was to be released with a cover depicting explosions emanating from about the same place in the World Trade Center where the two planes actually hit. This cover illustration was meant to portray the group’s anti-capitalism stance. Obviously this image was in many people’s minds before the event. Now it is in all of our minds, and the flight simulator and the album cover have been taken off the market.

Such movements within the collective psyche demonstrate how easily we can be affected by the impulses and images that emerge out of the unconscious, and they confront us with the big question: How do we deal with them? On some level we can all be gripped by an impulse to lash out, erupt in anger, fall into the grip of a temper tantrum. For instance, we frequently witness road rage incidents around us on almost a daily basis. We do not, though, usually see such things of the magnitude that we did on September 11th.

Ironically and fortuitously, our modern mythmakers have already been grappling with some of the “scenes” that we have witnessed in this tragedy. For example, in the first Star Wars film George Lucas portrayed power driven figures who would destroy a whole planet to achieve their purposes. What drives such people? How do the rest of us hold on to other values and live our lives? These are some of the questions posed by such stories and by the events that have so deeply affected us.

The current sequence of films Lucas is working on essentially revolves around the theme of how a basically sweet, good kid turns to evil. Young, unselfish Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader. Post-September 11th we are left to wonder how upper and middle class, well educated men could turn to such horrendous acts and a deep-seated belief in their justification. These are questions of mythic proportions and will take along time for us to comprehend.

As we approach the Solstice season, which celebrates a time of seasonal darkness and the birth of new life out of the dark void, we might want to consider the story told in Matthew’s gospel concerning the birth of Christ. Sinister forces, as represented by Herod, sought to destroy all male newborns so as to destroy the newborn king. But the boy’s father, Joseph, was warned in his dreams as to how to protect his child and see to his survival and growth. This story would suggest that we can look to the depths of the human psyche itself in order to best understand how to deal with the eruption of its darkest aspects.

This holiday season be sure to talk openly with those you know about what you might be feeling as the drama in the world around us continues to play itself out. May the Force be with us All.

Editor: Steve Galipeau

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