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Reply To: Changing Our Self-Perception As A Compassionate Deed,” with Kristina Dryža”


As you point out, Kristina, it’s a tough question – all the more so because we are in a fluid situation where archetypal forces are in play.

I touched on this briefly in the discussion of Brad Olson’s MythBlast last week:

In the Jungian model of the psyche archetypes are unable to directly access, or to be directly perceived within, mundane reality — but when patterns that evoke an archetype arise in an individual’s life, a complex set of behaviors are constellated, in effect adding flesh to the archetype as it comes to life in the individual, compelling actions that the conscious ego would never contemplate. Indeed, two weeks ago it seemed inconceivable, possibly even to Zelensky himself, that a professional comedian and past winner of the Ukrainian Dancing With the Stars contest, so far out of his depth, wouldn’t flee the country, under the rationale of ‘leading a government-in-exile’ – but, as he tells it, this ‘accidental hero’ had no choice but to stay and stand with his people.

Just as these intense and shattering circumstances constellated the expression of the Hero archetype in Zelensky, the same for his people – and, indeed, that archetypal energy seems to have rippled out across Europe, reaching our shores and elsewhere as even nations previously aligned with Russia take a stand.”

In a sense, the heroism of Zelensky and the Ukrainian people in these extreme circumstances proves contagious, as this dynamic overwhelms and subsumes the usual cautious rationalism of several major players (e.g. Germany and Sweden reversing tradition and agreeing to provide weapons to the Ukrainians, or Sweden and Finland abruptly open to NATO membership, and even historically neutral Switzerland actually imposing sanctions). I am in awe of how quickly and smoothly this night-sea change has manifested, in large part because archetypal energies are driving this transformation.

At the same time, in archetypal situations things tend to get a little fuzzy from the standpoint of conscious awareness. Zelensky, prior to the invasion a somewhat ineffectual, mediocre leader supported by less than 30% of his own people, is the beneficiary of a host of positive projections, as, indeed, are the Ukrainian people; similarly, for those of us outside Russia (and some inside that nation), Putin is an obvious target of our shadow projections.

There are plenty of hooks in both instances on which those projections catch and snag: Zelensky and his people are risking their lives in an heroic defense of their county, their families, and their way of life; Putin really is a dictator who has ordered the murders and incarcerations of those who oppose his rule, violated international norms, boldly lied to us time and again, and is responsible for suffering on a surreal scale of magnitude.

That tendency to elevate one’s allies and demonize one’s enemies is ever present in times of war, as Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, James Hillman (A Terrible Love of War), and Sam Keen (Faces of the Enemy), among others, have observed.

Indeed, it’s so difficult to transcend that dynamic that even your response to my post focuses on Putin as the embodiment of negative shadow energies, and on the positive traits of the Ukrainian people. Useful as is the exercise of embracing the shadow qualities we associate with Putin as present in our own psyche, as well as the positive qualities we now associate with the Ukrainians, that doesn’t answer my question, which was

“How can I feel compassion for Vladimir Putin?”

Your response has tremendous value, in that it helps me learn something about myself – but it also reinforces the negative projections I’m already making onto Putin (“totalitarian,” “black-and-white thinking,” “controlling,” “manipulative,” “coercive,” “power hungry,”).

Alas, that does nothing to help me feel compassion for Vladimir Putin as a human being.

That is indeed a tough question. It’s incredibly difficult to even discuss, as there is a natural tendency to assume that feeling compassion for someone who does horrible things is to condone, endorse, or excuse their behavior. Our default setting seems to be that those who do horrible things do not deserve compassion.

That’s where I found James’ observation during last week’s MythBlast discussion particularly relevant: “‘Loving your enemy as yourself’ doesn’t necessarily mean accepting evil . . . ” Experiencing compassion for someone who commits evil, whether Charlie Manson or Vladimir Putin, neither justifies their actions, nor helps them evade the consequences of their behavior.

It is easy to feel compassion for the valorous Ukrainians – but not so much their tormentor. Nor is there a practical benefit: we should not expect someone like Putin will respond to compassion from others. That’s just not going to happen.

After several years of working with the raw source material, I recently completed editing a Joseph Campbell volume that should be released toward the end of 2023. This discussion brings to mind a passage where Campbell mentions a friend of his, a Tibetan monk whose autobiography he helped edit. The stories that man had to share, of the escape from Lhasa  “with machine gun squads mowing down whole companies of refugees,” and other tales of suffering and torture, are quite brutal.

But these Buddhists are marvelous, with no complaints: this is world process, buddha process. I’ve lived with this young man now for years and have never heard a negative word about the Chinese. I learned what religion is from him. This is real love. This is inexhaustible benevolence. This is the wisdom and virtue of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and of Chuang Tzu. You get it from the Dalai Lama as well; he will never say a negative word. They read things positively. It’s marvelous!⁠”

I’m not there yet . . . but I am working on it.