Culture and psychology:
The death of the future?

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, 1995)

Undoubtedly, the thoughts that follow are in part occasioned by the fact that I'm weeks within finishing my master's degree in psychology, a process that I protracted with several years of directed training and experience in spiritual-based psychotherapy practice here and in California. As I end that process and begin deciding on a PhD program, I find myself in deeper ambivalence about our culture's psychological life than when I began

In 1968, I had what could only be called a "vision." Riding my bicycle at sunrise through the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Va., I was suddenly struck by bliss. That this experience of ineffable joy struck me -- an unhappy and morose student who was already addictively reading despair-filled French literature -- seemed ludicrous. Indeed, I later attributed it to eating too many hashhish brownies during the year.

In my heart, though, I knew this was not a psychedelic experience. Nor was it religious. I didn't really know what it was. Certainly, it involved the loss of boundaries, because I quite literally felt myself merge with the lightening sky and the song of a cardinal. Sometimes, recalling it in still later years, I thought perhaps I had regressed to the undifferentiated paradise of the womb.

But even that Freudian explanation was hollow because -- and this was the strangest quality of the experience -- the vision drew me into the future. On my bicycle, riding to breakfast before class, I had a stronger sense of wellbeing and possibility than I'd ever experienced. This most certainly did not arise from my unhappy past. My whole body sang, it seemed, with the future's promise.

Today, I understand that experience as my soul -- or the soul of the world itself -- suddenly impinging upon my personal consciousness. It was a process, not a vision in the sense that I "saw" something. More than 20 years later, on the deck of a cabin in the mountains of Northern California as I watched the mists rise over a field at sunrise, I would have a similar feeling. A bird literally flew onto my chair and dropped a sprig of wild oats in my lap. At that moment, too, my breaking heart, which felt as though the entire world were crying with me, was lifted and my focus shifted from the loss of a love to the possibilities before me. The mist lifted and the world glistened as it did 20 years earlier.

I have been thinking a lot about such experiences and the relationship of my inner life to the world during recent months. I can't recall any time when I felt so confused by what is occurring in American society. While my personal experience is that the soul calls us into the future, America's politicians seem to be calling us backward in time.

At times, this is blatant and sensational, like Newt Gingrich's harrowing call for a return to Victorian repression and the Christian Right's effort to criminalize abortion again, which is, at heart, really an effort to reinstitute the second-class status of women.

But the turning back takes subtler forms too. The American family obviously has lost its primacy. It is no match for the enormous social pressures of our time. Rather than revision family life, conservatives and liberals alike demand a return to "traditional family values," even though they have become impotent in the contemporary context.

Affirmative action, proactive legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, environmental legislation, publicly funded social services, funding of the arts -- all are being attacked and in their stead is offered a "return" to old-fashioned values, including the re-introduction of religion into our public institutions. It hardly matters that the failures of "old fashioned values" gave rise to the now disintegrating contemporary values. Enter the revisionists, who handle that bit of cognitive dissonance by imagining a past that never really existed outside television sitcoms and propagandist textbooks.

The revisionists brandish the American Constitution without any understanding of its historical and philosophical context and, invariably, they advocate personal initiative and responsibility -- as if personal responsibility does not extend to the welfare of others and to the planet, as if government should not take initiative in directly promoting the people's welfare. This selfishness and egotism are as far removed from genuine personal responsibility as, well, the past is from the future.

Modern psychology, which was actually conceived by its early thinkers as a tool of liberation of society as well as of individuals, has only aggravated this collapse into the past by abandoning its original mission. It decontextualizes personal life from the culture, teaching adaptation to the very social structures that oppress and pathologize the psyche. By absorbing itself completely in the personal, psychotherapy became so oriented to the individual's past that the psyche's (or "soul's") natural state of imagining completely new possibilities became stunted.

And, of course, it is the imagination that the champions of the past, like Robert Dole and Jesse Helms, most fear. That is why they attack art. In art, the culture can imagine new possibilities -- just as individuals can imagine new lives in their dreams. When Dole attacked Hollywood, he didn't attack violence and pornography. He mainly attacked parodies and satires of our obsessions with these themes. And he certainly didn't attack any of the real violence in our society. For real violence and its unparodied celebration on screen do not imagine new possibilities. They are means by which the culture catharts rather than revisions itself, thus preserving the status quo.

This is no defense of Hollywood and popular culture. The response of the art community to Dole was as lame as his attack. It's stupid to claim that art expresses social values without influencing them. It's as stupid as saying that you can build an ugly house and not be influenced by living there or have an effect on your neighbors.

And yet if an ugly house is what you have, it is useless to tear it down and build a relic -- a split level from the '50s -- in its place and pretend that by this change in the container, one will transform the self into Ward or June Cleaver. This is the futile goal of the backward looking. When did Ward and June deal with crack cocaine, toxic waste, AIDS, dwindling resources, a shrinking economy and the homeless? Are Ward and June -- or the Founding Fathers, for that matter -- equipped alone to solve these problems? Do you really need to tune into reruns to answer that question?

What is the alternative?

A culture that listens to the future, possibility, the imagination. If personal symptoms suggest their own cure, so do the world's. If an individual becomes violent, do we hand him a gun? If your child is starving, do you let him die? If your friend is withering without love in his life, do you isolate yourself from him? Is it an abridgement of personal responsibility to follow the heart in these cases, to nourish and protect? Of course not. Where does the heart's instinct arise and in what context? It arises in the spirit because it believes in the future, the hopeful unfoldment of possibility. How we choose to nourish and protect one another differs, of course, and it is right that we ask as a society how we best go about that.

But to abandon the particular challenges of the present and future by turning to an idealized past is to chain the imagination to memory -- which by definition is imagination looking backward. (So-called "false memory syndrome" is a cultural as well as an individual disorder. It points to the misappropriation of the imagination, miring it in the Cult of the Idealized Child, another backward-looking fiction that resulted from psychology's self-dogmatizing.)

Fortunately, growing numbers reject the petrifying process of nostalgia, choosing instead to put their trust in the imagination -- not in a particular outcome but in the process of creating new possibilities. This is not the blind optimism of New Age bliss ninnies, who are as focused on content and outcomes (the "ascension," for example) as are those who want to recreate the past.

It occurs to me that during that same period I had my "vision" in Williamsburg, I was studying Marshall McLuhan's ideas on technology. McLuhan said, basically, that technology disembodies man by accelerating his mind (like virtual reality, like dropping a bomb on Hiroshima). Since feelings arise in the body, technology thus numbs feelings, including our capacity for empathy. Perhaps, then, when we speak of restoring imagination to a place of primacy, we are talking above all about "remembering our bodies," to use Robert Sardello's phrase.

To remember the body means to let the heart love fully and the soul to join with the world. It means to reincarnate now.


Robert Sardello's Love and the Soul and Facing the World with Soul; Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul; Ruldof Steiner's The Wisdom of Man, of the Soul, and of the Spirit; James Hillman's A Blue Fire.

Copyright 1995 by Creative Loafing | Published 1995

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