Think Jung

Make Life a Mythic Journey

Enantiodromia and the “Tension of Opposites”

It is the opposite which is good for us.     –Heraclitus (cited by C. G. Jung)

In my last two blogs, “Betting on Barack?” and “Saving Us from the Privatizing Paul Ryan,” I focused on common psychological problems that led politicians in opposite directions.  The Republican Paul Ryan (as well as Mitt Romney) favor economic policies that support the upper economic class while the Democrat President Barack Obama supports the middle class. This is but one example of what Jung called the “tension of opposites” that are characteristic of the psychology of Western cultures.  In fact, Jung used an ancient Greek term coined by the philosopher Heraclitus, enantiodromia, to indicate that an “unconscious opposite” would “always occur when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life” (see Psychological Types para. 709).

Whenever there is any problem, according to Jung, there will be two opposite approaches for solving it.  Moreover, neither solution will be correct, but must undergo the tension that will result in a third approach.  There are many problems that illustrate this process.  In my book, Think Jung! How I Found Meaning in My Life (2012) I discuss a dispute that arose between my wife and me (see “Black Day, White Knight: My ‘Damsel in Distress’”).  She insisted on continuing to see a therapist whose advice nearly cost her life while I was equally opposed.  Only following Jung’s advice to let this tension of opposites work its course led to a solution.  I offered a compromise solution that was supported by Camille’s friend as being  “very reasonable.”

But aren’t there moral principles that are firm that trump this tension?  For example, the principle of do no harm would seem to be one such an unequivocal moral precept.  Even here, however, there exists tension.  Consider the Roman Catholic Church’s position in the current political campaign.  On the one hand, the bishops have condemned Paul Ryan’s proposed budget as being harsh and un-Christian with respect to the poor.  On the other hand, Cardinal Dolan has made it clear that he opposes the Democrats pro-choice position with respect to abortion.  As it was with my wife, if one adheres to one or the other position then one group will be martyred—either the poor or women seeking an abortion to due rape or incest.

And this is one of the strengths of democracy.  It allows the tension of opposites to be debated and compromise—the “third” solution as Jung called it—to be reached.  Of course, when compromise is denied due to inflexible ideological beliefs, then democracy fails and the tension persists.  That is the situation Americans now face at the national level as extreme, right wing Tea Party Republicans refuse to compromise.  So, we are temporarily denied the benefits of the opposite.

Until we recognize the essential nature of the tension of opposites, our politics, our culture, and our personal lives will be dysfunctional.  There is no moral absolute, no perfect ideology, no single true path for us.  There is only the suffering through the tension of opposites to a just resolution.  This requires one important principle: tolerance of the other.

Paul Marshall Wortman

September 16, 2012

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