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Reply To: The King Who Saved Himself From Being Saved” with Bradley Olson, Ph.D.”

Bradley Olson

Thanks, Stephen, for your always thoughtful comments.

Let me take up the inner/outer distinction first; perhaps for the sake of clarity I’ll try to address your thoughts in the same order in which you’ve laid them out here.

Inner and outer are subjective distinctions we make, usually about the world as we, ourselves, experience it, and which are to a surprising degree, arbitrary. M. Merleau-Ponty, in Working Notes argues that “Meaning is invisible, but the invisible is not contradictory of the visible: the visible itself has an invisible inner framework, and the invisible is the secret counterpart of the visible.” And James Hillman makes this observation in his book, The Soul’s Code:

Your visible image shows your inner truth, so when you’re estimating others, what you see is what you get. It therefore becomes critically important to see generously, or you will get only what you see; to see sharply, so that you discern the mix of traits rather than a generalized lump; and to see deeply into dark shadows, or else you will be deceived.

So, one may begin to understand what I mean when I suggest that the distinction between inner and outer is subjective and arbitrary. The great deeds that are accomplished in the dimensions of time and space often pale in comparison to the achievements of becoming who, as Nietzsche put it, one is. And who one is, to elaborate on Hillman above, makes oneself known in the world, has real world consequences–for good or ill.

I think your remark, Stephen, about the hero not knowing he’s a hero is really important. Fundamentally, the hero is in service to something greater than itself. The Greek word that we’ve borrowed for therapy is therapaeia, which means “to wait upon” in the same way a nurse or a tender care-giver attends to suffering: with a watchful, compassionate presence; not doing too much or too little, and trying to avoid contributing to the suffering. Perhaps this is the animating sentiment of the hero, one is moved to act out of compassion. But once you have decided that you’re a hero, that only you have the answers and the power to implement them, the idea of service takes a back seat and it becomes about you and your heroism. An inflated identification results, and heroism becomes a profession rather than a calling, a service. As you know, Stephen, I was once a police officer, and if I happened to do anything remotely heroic, it was simply out of my own unconscious instinct for survival. I think heroism is generally accidental; “It seems that destiny has taken a hand,” as Bogey says in Casablanca.

I wasn’t entirely conscious of it before I wrote that last sentence, but perhaps Casablanca is the movie we should be watching right now. It’s impossible to ignore the events of the past several days, which show us a Mr. Putin who apparently believes that he is acting in an heroic manner, but like Ciardi’s hero, he is saving the Ukraine in two. Berthold Brecht wrote in his The Life of Galileo, “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” Because the land that needs a hero suffers on two fronts, first from the circumstances that evoke its cries for deliverance, and secondly, large portions of the land and its people themselves will suffer from the Hero’s acts of “saving them.” The hero business is always a rather messy one. For people like Mr. Putin, and Mr. Trump who is unabashedly cheering him on, looking inward is apparently an act of which they are not constitutionally capable. Their own inner space is the place at which their courage falters; the inner world of such men, true to some degree of all humankind, is the place that holds all the dangers, the dragons, and the paralyzing terror.

There is an old Islamic proverb, “If thou can’st walk on water, thou art  no better than a straw. If thou can’st fly through the air, thou art no better than a fly. Conquer thy heart that thou mayest become somebody.” (Anasari) In Japan there is an old saying, “He stands on a whale, fishing for minnows.” These adages suggest that it is extraordinarily difficult to see ourselves or our situations with any sort of clarity or objectivity, or have the courage to do battle with our own demons. That inner space is really the place that requires our measure of heroic courage.

Lastly, putting on my psychoanalyst’s hat, it’s easy to forget how seductive power is. Henry Kissinger once remarked that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and if one is confident one has the power to act heroically in the world, it may be safe to say that one isn’t likely to act heroically, but is rather acting out in the world a destructive, unconscious auto-erotic fantasy.