Jung’s Challenge to Us: Holding the Tension of the Opposites

Jung’s Challenge to Us:

“Holding the Tension of the Opposites”


            The last fifteen years of Carl Jung’s life[1] were lived against the backdrop of the Cold War—that time in our global history when most of the nations of the world were aligned either with the “West” or with the “Communist bloc.” Intermittently throughout this time the people of the world held their breath as they watched confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union heat up. During one such tense time[2] members of the Psychological Club in Zurich asked Jung if he thought there would be an atomic war. Barbara Hannah recalled his reply:

“I think it depends on how many people can stand the tension of the opposites in themselves. If enough can do so, I think the situation will just hold, and we shall be able to creep around innumerable threats and thus avoid the worst catastrophe of all: the final clash of opposites in an atomic war. But if there are not enough and such a war should break out, I am afraid it would inevitably mean the end of our civilization as so many civilizations have ended in the past but on a smaller scale.”[3]

In the 1950’s the “opposites” globally were the capitalist West and the communist East, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. The latter collapsed in 1989, seemingly leaving the United States as the undisputed leader of the world. But a nation as unconscious as the U.S. cannot exist for long without some external threat carrying its shadow, and it didn’t take more than a few years before another “opposite” emerged. What replaced Communism as our “opposite”?

            Consider the major features of American society: We are a liberal,[4] secular,[5] ethnically diverse and pluralistic culture. We espouse democratic ideals and are progressive in the sense that we expect the future to be better than the past.[6] We cherish free-market capitalism, an economic orientation well-suited to our materialistic bent. Many of our citizens enjoy high-tech forms of entertainment and urbane activities in a cultural milieu of moral debauchery.[7]

            The opposite of our society would be a culture that is illiberal, intolerant of diversity, theocratic and tribal. It would reject democracy and be oriented to the past, to traditions and history, rather than to the future. Such a culture would regard “progress” as a threat to its heritage, and would reject both capitalism and the materialism on which capitalism is built. It would be regressive, fanatically religious, dogmatic in its beliefs and rural in its orientation. Its citizens would live under a moral code that seems (to the “modern” West) almost medieval.

            Do we see such an opposite in our world today? Clearly, the Islamic jihadists and, in particular, the Taliban, are just such a society.[8] And, given their commitment to a bogus interpretation of jihad,[9] they are eager to confront the United States. Since 1993 the world has witnessed increasingly destructive examples of the “clash of opposites” that Jung feared: the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center; the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa; the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon; the 2002 bombing of the nightclub in Bali; the 2004 railroad bombing in Madrid; and the 2005 bombing of the tube and buses in London.

            In multiple messages the late Ayatollah Khomeini made it clear that he viewed the United States as the “Great Satan”[10] and Osama bin Laden has demanded that we convert to Islam, give up our military bases in the Middle East, and change our way of life to conform to Islamic values.[11] In this he is reflecting a deeper “opposite,” that is, a more fundamental clash of opposites, in what has been called the “clash of fundamentalisms.”[12] Both Christianity and Islam lay claim to having the Truth. Each insists only its way is the right way. In an earlier essay I defined “cosmic vanity.”[13] This idea that one religion is the sole proponent of truth is cosmic vanity. This way of thinking was the ideological basis for the crusades back in the Middle Ages. It comes as a shock to most Western people to learn that Osama and the jihadists are still operating with this medieval mindset and in their minds they have taken up the efforts to conquer the “infidel” that went on for over a thousand years.[14]

            In the essay on America’s shadow[15] I noted how the United States is so strongly an ESTJ culture, Extraverted (oriented to the outer world), Sensate (focused on tangible, material things), Thinking (preferring rational argument and objective facts to feelings and subjective values), and Judging (liking closure, decisive leadership and rapid decision-making). Such a strong bias does not conduce toward introspection and reflection, so it is not surprising that we have to see our inner opposite “out there,” in outer reality, rather than recognizing it within ourselves. We are now facing our unconscious in our current confrontation with the Islamic jihadists, who are carrying the projection of our societal shadow. Failing to hold Jung’s “tension of opposites” within ourselves, we are forced to experience it in outer reality.

            Given the fanaticism of the jihadists and the profundity of our Western unconsciousness, this projection presents us with the gravest of problems. Jung offers us some advice in this impasse:

“…I had learned that all the greatest and most important problems of life are fundamentally insoluble…. They can never be solved, but only outgrown.”[16]

Our current situation globally is not a problem to be “solved” with logic, reason, computer programs and other forms of left-brained processing. We are here dealing with a situation we must outgrow. The ego mind does not have the answers here. We can’t use our conscious mind to figure out what to do. Neither the predominance of our Thinking function, nor our Extraverted bias will be useful in dealing with our current challenges. “Outgrowing” our current challenges requires not cogitation but reflection, introspection and conscientious inner work.

            On the individual level, we each must “stand the tension of opposites” in ourselves. Each of us is being asked by the realities of our world to take up the task of integrating the shadow, and it is not an easy task, for it requires engagement with the unconscious. The Extraversion that is so prevalent in America tends to ignore the unconscious and, indeed, anything having to do with inner life. So we can’t expect a majority of people to jump into this task; we’ll be fortunate if even a very small minority of people confront their shadow side, with its dogmatism, intolerance, regressive tendencies, judgmentalism, self-righteousness and insecurity.

            Jung never expected the majority of people to “get with his program.” All he hoped for was “enough,” what he called a “leading minority.”[17] If “enough can stand the tension of the opposites in themselves” we just might be able to “creep around the innumerable threats” and avoid global catastrophe. Are “enough” people doing the inner work? Is the “critical mass” growing to the point that we will be able to stave off the “end of civilization” that Jung feared would result if we failed? We don’t know. But this question—without an answer—should motivate each of us to continue our inner work all the more conscientiously.

            While we work all the more diligently on ourselves, we must consider some hypothetical potentialities in this challenging time.  Suppose the Taliban take over Pakistan with its 100+ nuclear bombs. Suppose AIPAC were to exert its considerable political influence on the U.S. government to defend Israel at all costs.[18] Suppose a consortium of Christian fundamentalists, apocalypticists, super-patriots and politicians stupid enough to think a war could help pull us out of our economic doldrums coalesced and pressured the United States to get more deeply involved in Middle East politics. Suppose all these or similar nightmares came to pass and we, the people of planet Earth, failed to avoid “the final clash of opposites in an atomic war.” What then?

In his deathbed vision Jung himself envisioned large areas of the Earth completely devastated. If the confrontation with the jihadists took an atomic form, we might expect to see whole regions rendered uninhabitable due to radiation pollution. People, animals, vegetation, even the delicate ecological balances that sustain life—all would die. There would be a massive experience of death, the alchemical mortificatio.            

We are currently living in a world in transition. The tenth volume of Jung’s Collected Works has the title “Civilization in Transition,” reflecting Jung’s recognition of this fact. Part of the process of transition is the mortificatio, when something dies. In his alchemical studies Jung recognized how essential the mortificatio phase is in any process of transformation: things have to die, so as to allow space for new things to emerge. On a global scale we may perhaps be approaching a mortificatio phase, when the old form of “civilization” as we have known it will end.

Something as long-lived, as cherished and as globally pervasive as our current civilization cannot be transformed without some major events that instigate the process. Jung clearly did not regard such an eventuality as a positive, but we might contemplate the prospect from a different vantage point, drawing on the work of many people who, over the last several decades, have been envisioning new possibilities for planetary existence[19]—possibilities that require a clearing out of old ways, old habit patterns, and old assumptions about reality. What needs to be cleared out? And what sort of civilization might come into being? We consider these questions in a later essay. First, we need to consider the archetype that might clear the way for a new form of civilization to emerge. This is the archetype of the apocalypse.




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[1] I.e. 1946-1961.

[2] Barbara Hannah thought this was around 1954; Hannah (1976), 129.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Liberal” is used here not in the way Republicans currently use the word but in the 19th century sense of favoring civil liberties, human rights and a democratic form of government.

[5] That is, we support a separation of church and state, and our society is not like European societies in having a history of an established church.

[6] For the American fascination with and commitment to progress see Nisbet (1980).

[7] Some current signs of the moral degradation of our culture include the phenomenon of “sexting” in teenagers’ cell phone use; the greed of Wall Street financiers; the usurious interest rates of credit card companies; the proliferation of pornography; the popularity of Internet poker and other forms of gambling; the graft and shoddy work by contractors for the Department of Defense in Iraq and Afghanistan (which is getting our soldiers killed when they take showers!); and the array of scandals in the corporate world and government.

[8] Cf. Lewis (2002), Lewis (2003), Patai (2007) and Fisk (2007), especially pages 25-27 and 849-850.

[9] The root meaning of jihad is “striving” or “effort.” It has been interpreted variously as “moral striving” and “armed struggle.” In a defensive war, i.e. when the “House of Islam” has been attacked, jihad becomes the obligation of all able-bodied Muslims. But regardless of whether the war is defensive or offensive, the Koran is explicit that women and children should never be attacked; Lewis (2003), 29-33.

[10] Ibid., 81,86,163.

[11] Ibid., 157-158.

[12] Ali (2002). This is the title of his book.

[13] “The Law of Cause and Effect and America’s Future.”

[14] Lewis (2003), 37-38.

[15] Posted to the Jungian Center blog in May 2009.

[16] Collected Works 13, ¶18. Hereafter Collected Works is cited as CW.

[17] CW 18, ¶1393

[18] Friedman (1995), 457.

[19]  Cf. Allen (1980), Dorf & Hunter (1978), Berman (1981), Berry (1988), Berry (1977), Bezold (1978), Bookchin (1978), Borsodi (1948), Boulding (1980), Carroll (1973), Collard (1978), Daly (1977), Daly (1980), Deming (1984), Devall & Sessions (1985), Eisler (1987), Eisler (2007), Ekins (1986), Elgin (1981), Ferguson (1984), Fox (1979), Harman (1979), Harman (1988), Hay (1984), Henderson (1981), Johnson (1985), Johnson (1979), Kaplan (1978), Krippner (1980), Leopold (1966), Lovelock (1979), Lovins (1977), Lutz & Lux (1979), Mander (1991), Maslow (1971), Muller (1982), Naess (1972), Nearing (1970), Needleman (1985), Nichols (1975), Pitt (1988), Rifkin (1980), Roszak (1979), Russell (1983), Sale (1980), Stain (1979), Schaef (1985), Schumacher (1973), Shames & Stern (1978), Singer (1975), Sorokin (1950), Stone (1975), Vasconcellos (1979), and Waring (1988).


  1. Can I simply just say what a comfort too find an individual who really understands what they are talking about
    over thee internet. You certainly realize how to bring a problem to light and make it important.
    More and more people ought to check this out and understand this
    side of your story. I was surprised you aren’t more popular
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  2. Jung himself recognized that “popularity” was not likely in this type of work, since it requires looking within and self-reflection, neither of which are the sort of things Extraverted Americans like to do. Much like Mother Teresa, we don’t strive to be “successful” or “popular,” but rather we seek to be faithful to the inner voice and responsive to intuitive guidance. Many thanks for taking the time to post a comment in response to the essay!
  3. In 2014, consider that American society is now more depicted in the second paragraph:

    Consider the major features of American society: We are a liberal,[4] secular,[5] ethnically diverse and pluralistic culture. We espouse democratic ideals and are progressive in the sense that we expect the future to be better than the past.[6] We cherish free-market capitalism, an economic orientation well-suited to our materialistic bent. Many of our citizens enjoy high-tech forms of entertainment and urbane activities in a cultural milieu of moral debauchery.[7]

    The opposite of our society would be a culture that is illiberal, intolerant of diversity, theocratic and tribal. It would reject democracy and be oriented to the past, to traditions and history, rather than to the future. Such a culture would regard “progress” as a threat to its heritage, and would reject both capitalism and the materialism on which capitalism is built. It would be regressive, fanatically religious, dogmatic in its beliefs and rural in its orientation. Its citizens would live under a moral code that seems (to the “modern” West) almost medieval.

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