Blog One: Series Introduction
America On the Couch: How To Understand the Stories Driving Us
By Carol S. Pearson
I’m writing this blog series for those who, like me, are worried about my country (the United States). I suspect it is not news to you that our two-party system has devolved into an endless cultural civil war that makes it difficult to solve the urgent problems we face. As the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021, demonstrated, some partisans are ready to use violence to achieve their political ends. You likely have a view about which party is more to blame, which can help you decide who to vote and work for, but blame goes only so far. As President Lincoln put it, paraphrasing the Bible, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”(Mark 3:25). I’m asking you to focus not on blame, but on a deeper understanding that can address the challenge of unifying this country.
Understanding archetypal stories active in the U.S. can reveal the deeper motivations of the groups within the divide—archetypes that could reunite us as well as unconscious, shadowy ones that, like monsters from the deep, could drag us down together. Moreover, our people and our archetypes have not evolved at the same rate for everyone, even for all those who wanted to realize our founders’ dreams. The conservative’s job is to preserve what is best about the past, while the task of liberals/progressives is to meet the needs of the present and the foreseeable future. When they do their jobs and work together, government generally functions well. To generalize, conservatives prefer the past and accommodate to change slowly, so may express archetypal motivations in earlier forms and fear changing perspectives, even as potentially as evil. Liberals/progressives relish change—of the kind they wish— so are early adopters of new expressions, but fear the undertow of what has been harmful in the past and present to some degree that could continue to create harm in the future.
It is tragic that the pandemic, climate change, increased natural disasters, and not even our leadership role in the world have been able to pull Americans together. Both conservatives and liberals now believe they are losing what is best about their country because the other party is bad and wrong. That is why an archetypal analysis of the stories underlying this difference is essential. It helps us understand the driving forces—our own and those of others—as well as the plotlines that unconsciously govern how people behave. Such an analysis also can help us grasp the deeper motivations behind opinions we disagree with, thus enabling us to communicate more productively with one another.
About Archetypal Narratives in Individuals and Cultures
Archetypal narratives motivate, energize, and organize what people think and do. Archetypal stories are universal, available to us all. Living archetypal stories helps individuals and groups gain the insights and capabilities that their plotlines foster. For example, living a Caregiver story promotes the development of empathy, compassion, and helping skills; however, when carried to an extreme, it also can lead a person to be overly empathic and take on the sufferings of others rather than just assisting them. In positive form, living a Warrior story contributes to learning to protect oneself and others from harm and to competing skillfully in order to succeed; however, it also can lead to atrocities against anyone seen as the enemy.[i]
Right now, the Warrior archetype is motivating fear, anger, self-righteousness, and a desire to win at all costs. Fear and anger can lead to horrific actions, such as after 9/11, when Americans tortured people suspected of being terrorists or, now, when some are willing to use violence to overthrow democracy. In less egregious form, but also harmful, is a Warrior/Caregiver pattern of undermining people’s entire careers or lives because they said or did something lawful but that causes pain, even in the distant past.[ii]
Each of the archetypes in my 12-archetype system (Idealist, Realist, Caregiver, Warrior, Seeker, Lover, Creator, Revolutionary, Ruler, Jester, Sage, and Magician) promotes human development and evolution. At best, the expression of archetypes evolves to match the real needs of a time; sadly, it can devolve when people are stressed, angry, or anxious. Some qualities viewed by one’s culture as negative also become more primitive when they are banished to our inner shadow worlds. We then may repress them in ourselves and project them onto others. For example, Americans consciously value democracy, while autocratic impulses get banished to the American shadow, where they can control us without our recognizing them in ourselves even as we perceive them in others.
Conversely, reading, listening or viewing archetypal stories can awaken an ability to understand what it is like to walk in the characters’ shoes. This then triggers mirror neurons in our brains that help us imaginatively feel what they feel and, with practice, develop their capacities. We can use this ability to better understand people who have felt other to us or that we have judged, or whom we have not understood before. When our perspectives are expanded, we can more easily accept ourselves and others as we/they are and then use behavioral reinforcement to encourage positive signs of growth.
Archetypal narrative intelligence also can help us recognize the deeper needs we have that keep us from being more fully part of the solution to our country’s problems. This is critical for those of us currently splintering into different parties and groups. We can now reclaim the archetypal stories that energized the country’s founding dreams by first recognizing them in our own motivations and actions. We can then update the expressions of the stories we are living to meet the urgent needs of our time. In that process, we are preserving what has been the best of our past, treasuring where and how the founding dreams are lived already, as we also work to evolve ourselves and our nation to prepare for the future.
Discovering the Archetypal Narratives That Can Unite Us
To unify our country, we need to understand how its mythology can be understood as both “sacred story” and “myth,” as in falsehood. Even when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, many today are stopped short by the claim that our republic offers “liberty and justice for all,” when they know that this promise has not been realized. At the same time, others believe that this goal has been reached, and it is up to individuals simply to work harder to achieve financial and social equality.
America’s mythology tips its hat to our Warrior strengths (America as “the home of the brave”), but it more consistently emphasizes qualities of our strong Seeker and Lover archetypes. The Seeker highlights how we express the desire for liberty, and the Lover our belief that freedom should be for all and our capacity to come together across differences.
We can learn today from the ways Americans have triumphed by taking new journeys—from the original explorers, to pioneers going west, to liberation movements marching for freedom, and from all of us as individuals who keep growing and developing throughout our lives. We also can learn from our capacity to settle down and create supportive communities and come together as a nation. The second blog in this series explores how the Seeker/Lover could unite us.
Our Country’s Unconscious, Undervalued Strengths and Habitual Quarrels
The divide began at our country’s founding with a war for independence that not every colonist supported. Then, soon after our founders were affirming inalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” our country’s new Constitution allowed for citizens to enslave other human beings and engage in genocide against our indigenous population, faults that were addressed to some degree over time through amendments as the consciousness of Americans over all evolved, but not uniformly.
Our culture today mirrors attitudes that were extant at every period of our history. And, like individuals, our nation has core values that define how it likes to be seen, but also a messy and complex history, with faults both obvious and hidden. The slow pace of our progress toward realizing that founding dream for everyone results from some people pursuing their narrow self-interest as well as our country’s shadow issues: unconscious archetypal expressions that serve as an undertow that retards our natural desire to improve and evolve. My third blog will explore this, followed by a fourth that reveals a unifying, though undervalued, American archetypal strength (Jester). The fifth blog will examine four narratives about America circulating today that divide us unnecessarily, but that could unite us—that is, if we are guided by an archetypal analysis, an understanding of intersectionality, and a passion for unifying our country—in time to avert looming disasters.
[i] For more information, check out What Stories Are You Living? Discover Your Archetypes– Transform Your Life and use thecoupon in it to take the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator® instrument.