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Jungians on Fundamentalism


     “It’s butterfly or die!”

A perspective on fundamentalism according to analysts trained in the doctrines of psychiatrist Carl Jung is very helpful these days.

There was a disturbing account in the newspaper this morning about the resurgence of radical Islamists in Egypt, and it reminded me of a talk I heard early this year on fundamentalism by a diplomate Jungian analyst, Eberhard Riedel, Ph.D. His insights through working with fundamentalist patients were very illuminating.

He led his audience away from the concept of “the other” by reminding us how the radical acts of foreign fundamentalists have incited radical responses in us. The point went home. Fundamentalism is associated with rigidity and paranoia, and it feels as though both qualities are continually escalating in this country. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have a civil conversation when dissenting opinions are in play.

Riedel spoke of fundamentalism as a collective wound that must be healed by finding a new paradigm for relating to the self, the other, and the divine. Nevertheless, he was very frank about how difficult it is to relate to a fundamentalist, whether Christian or Muslim.

The fundamentalist dissociates, as he put it. He or she is cut off from the capacity for imagination and curiosity. The drive is to ally with an external power that demands perfect allegiance to its rules. In the most extreme cases, the individual even dissociates from the body. As one male patient told him, “My body?—my body is a tool, not really a part of me, expendable, it is a booster rocket on my way to heaven.”

One can see how this kind of allegiance leads to suicide attacks, and the rational person wonders anxiously how to deal with such a mindset. The conclusion can be, “Get them before they get us.” Radicalism breeds radicalism.

The Jungian analysts have another perspective however, and that is the belief that chaos—which seems increasingly imminent through warfare, climate change, and political conflict­—is always the catalyst for creativity.

Marilyn Matthews, MD, another Jungian analyst, provides a wonderful way of looking at chaos and creativity in a paper called “Apocalypse Now: Breakdown or Breakthrough?” She describes the transformation of the caterpillar into a butterfly.

Encased in a chrysalis, its body is the environment in which “imaginal cells” coded with butterfly multiply. The caterpillar’s immune system attacks those cells, but they survive and feed upon the rich nutrient soup created by the conflict. The caterpillar disappears, and the pupa forms. Eventually it becomes transparent and the colors of the butterfly emerge.

Now the butterfly must struggle to escape from its prison, and no help can be given or it will die. “Finally, after many hours, a very wet butterfly emerges, again hangs upside down, gently and slowly at first fanning its new wings. When the wings are dry, it flies away.”

Dr. Matthews goes on to say that “The organizations and individuals who live with the awareness of the possibilities for change in chaos and who can pay attention to what they intend for the future have more opportunity to ride out the unstoppable tide of the imaginal cells.”

Clearly, the caution of the Jungians is to guard against cultivating within ourselves what we fear in others. No one is suggesting that this will be easy, and I expect that the word “refrain” needs to take up permanent residence in our consciousness if we are to survive. As Dr. Matthews put it, “It’s butterfly or die!”

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