Saturday, April 19, 2008

Creativity, Guilt, & Psychological Development

by Lawrence H. Staples
author of Guilt with a Twist

There is a creative urge within us that is even deeper than the urge to create a baby or a book or a symphony. It is the urge to create and build our personality until we become who we most deeply are, who we are supposed to be. It is the urge toward wholeness.

Completing the building of our personality requires us to integrate into our conscious personality contents that for half a lifetime may have been anathema to us. It means embracing contents that are the opposite of what is conventionally acceptable to society, our parents, and ourselves.


Jung recognized that the problem of the opposites is one of the most formidable obstacles to psychic integration. Even when we are able to integrate opposites there remains substantial tension between them. If the integration is so complete that the opposites literally merge, consciousness, as we know it, disappears. Consciousness of life depends upon the tension of opposites. So the problem is to bring them close together without a total merger in which one or the other of the opposites would lose its identity. This is indeed a challenging task.

To complicate, but also clarify, the problem of the opposites, I would like to share with you a quote from Jung that contains what for me is his most profound insight on the subject of guilt and its relationship to human existence. Jung said, “The one-after-another is a bearable prelude to the deepest knowledge of the side-by-side, for this is an incomparably more difficult problem. Again, the view that good and evil are spiritual forces outside us, and that man is caught in the conflict between them, is more bearable by far than the insight that the opposites are the ineradicable and indispensable precondition of all psychic life, so much so that life itself is guilt.” It is important here to note that “side-by-side” for Jung does not mean a merger, mutual absorption, or synthesis of opposites.

The idea that life itself is guilt is based upon conceptions of how human consciousness works. Consciousness itself depends on the existence of polar opposites. These are basic to the architecture and anatomy of the psyche. The flow of psychic energy is similar to the flow of electricity. It is based on the same principle. The flow is between polar opposites, negative and positive. If psychic energy does not flow, we are “brain dead”. Our body may be alive but we do not know it. Guilt causes us to divide our psychic world into pairs of opposites based upon their imputed values of relative goodness or badness. Because guilt is behind the formation of the opposites, guilt is also behind the formation of consciousness. Guilt, therefore, is a price we pay for our consciousness. The relationship between guilt and consciousness is embedded in the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, tempted by the serpent, eat of the tree of knowledge and become capable of distinguishing between good and evil. Consciousness is this capacity to differentiate. The eating of the forbidden fruit is the mythical basis for this consciousness. We lose our paradisiacal innocence when we become aware of the opposites. Guilt, therefore, which attempts to keep us from our ‘evil other’, is closely related to the formation of the opposites in our psychic anatomy. We suffer for this capacity.


Fortunately, there is a powerful tool that can help us integrate these unacceptable opposites. This tool is creative work. Creative production in art, as in life, depends upon bringing two opposites, the masculine and the feminine, into close enough proximity to produce a “child”(i.e., a book, a symphony, a painting, etc.) without losing the identity of the opposites that created the “child”. When we begin to do creative work, we connect to the deepest forces that govern all creation. It connects us to God, to the self within, to put it in Jungian terms. Reflected in our language is the Judaeo/Christian idea and belief that God and the creator and sustainer of all existence are one. The words God and Creator are in fact interchangeable in English as well as in other Western languages, such as French and German. The ultimate product of this process of psychological, inner creation is a stronger ego that increasingly approximates a reflected image of the Archetypal Self, which is whole and contains all of the opposites.

The Archetypal Self, or God, represents the totality; nothing is left out. But a colossal lie stands in the way of achieving this totality. The lie is not about the existence or non-existence of the opposites, the dark and the light. We know they exist. The lie is in labeling one side exclusively good and the other side exclusively bad, as we tend to do. We know that creation is enabled by the existence of, masculine and feminine opposites. If we make one side good and the other side bad, we reject one of the essential players in the creative drama.

There is an instinct deep within us, although difficult to access consciously, that tells us that embracing the one-sided formulas for salvation, including the Christian advocacy of the exclusive primacy of love, will actually keep us from the totality of our selves. It is an instinct that actually is our salvation. It emanates from our duality. It tells us that we must love and hate everything at the same time. We must love the dark and the light and we must hate the dark and the light. Wired as we are, light has no meaning without the dark and dark has no meaning without the light. Each of these depends on the other for its existence. Without the one, there can be no consciousness of the other, and nothing exists for an individual if he is not conscious of it. If we are unable to maintain simultaneously in consciousness both our hate and love feelings, we cannot protect ourselves if we are abused—physically, psychologically, or sexually—by those whom we deeply love and those whom we need to trust.

It is our duality that causes us to be drawn inexorably to movies (e.g., Crash, Lawrence of Arabia, or A Civil Action) or to great art, literature, or music (e.g., the opera Tosca or the play Hamlet). In Tosca, we see Scarpia, on his knees, praying in church, while leering lustfully at Tosca. In the movie, Crash, a policeman saves the life of a black woman whom just days before he had humiliated and mistreated. We see Hamlet indecisive and cowardly one day, and the next brave and sure. In Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence risks his life to save a man who he deliberately kills shortly thereafter. In A Civil Action, a greedy, money-driven, ambulance-chasing lawyer finds a cause for which he is willing to sacrifice his career and fortune. And then there is Peter loving Christ one moment and denying him the next. There is a Jekyll and Hyde in all of us in all people. We are drawn, as if against our wills, to these conflicting portraits. We are drawn to them and have feeling for them because we see ourselves in them, whether we know it or not. We are drawn to images that reflect ourselves, but protect us from the direct experience. To know that we have the same base feelings in us as Scarpia, right along side all of our goodness, is difficult to bear. We are drawn, nevertheless, to these characters and images because nature seems to have planted deep within us a developmental process that, through the agency of feeling, attracts us irresistibly closer and closer to our opposites. It attracts us to our opposites so that we can come together with them, side by side, in an embrace of creativity that leads us eventually to wholeness. As we experience in literature, art, and life, we are ineluctably attracted to realness, to three dimensionality, to wholeness.

Life might be easier, simpler, and less painful if our one-sidedness could be a sustainable reality instead of a wish. But, there are always two sides, regardless of whether we are conscious of them. The solution to this dilemma involves finding a way to honor both sides of ourselves in consciousness. This is the answer, but it is not easy to hold on to it. It involves a creative solution to one of life’s most difficult problems. The answer lies in a creation that depends upon intimate contact of two opposites without either being lost or subsumed by the other.

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