Living Myth

Mosaic presents Living Myth, a podcast with Michael Meade, renowned mythologist and storyteller. Meade presents mythic stories that offer uniquely insightful and wise ways of understanding the current dilemmas of the world we live in. Living Myth proposes that genuine solutions to the complex and intractable problems of our world require both transcendent imagination and cohering, transformative narratives.
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Mar 16, 2022

This episode of Living Myth begins with the deepening of the war in Ukraine and the growing sense of anxiety in the world. Michael Meade turns to depth psychology to consider instinctive ways of coping with insecurity, uncertainty and the tragedies of life.


"If a person wishes to be sure of the road they tread, they must close their eyes and walk in the dark." That statement comes from St. John of the Cross, who also coined the phrase “the dark night of the soul.” Often, I wake up thinking about the hordes of people who now find themselves treading through darkness, like those caught in the ever-deepening tragedy of the war in Ukraine.


An old tension exists between the presence of tragedy and the loss of innocence. And there's a way in which this clearly unnecessary, coldly destructive and brutal war enacts a daily assault on human innocence. When the Russian army heavily bombed a maternity hospital, people all over the world saw images of a very pregnant mother being hurriedly carried through smoking rubble on a makeshift stretcher. The sense of tragedy deepened when desperate attempts to save the mother failed and both innocent lives were lost.


At times, I try to turn away from the ongoing tragedy, but mostly I cannot manage to turn away. It's as if averting my eyes might add to the anguish and abandonment of all those who are suffering. Part of me wants to see all the video clips of the thousands and thousands of children being hurried fearfully into an unknown, uncertain future. And part of me wants to witness with my own eyes the filling in of mass graves in the city of Mariupol, where an actual witness said that “the land is now soaked in blood, bitterness, and despair.”


When I do close my eyes, I continue to see some of the tragic images. I also see and feel the darkness that fell over me and our country during the Vietnam War. I was torn open at that time and become torn again each time an unjustified war turns the living world upside down. When I hear the dark propaganda and the massive misinformation coming out of Russia, I viscerally remember the distortions and lies used to deny the actual death tolls and the massive destruction unleashed during the Vietnam era.


To this day, I feel compelled to witness war coverage and often fail to know when I've seen enough or how I might find a way of withdrawing and escaping the numbing presence of mindless war. Yesterday, I was at the point of feeling torn between witnessing and turning away when an interview with a Ukrainian man, who lives in war torn Ukraine but is Russian in origin, caught my full attention. He spoke passionately about trying to inform his parents in Russia about the horrors of Putin’s war. He then described how distressing and enraging it was to have his own parents tell him that he was not telling the truth when he described all of the destruction and unnecessary death that is tearing Ukraine apart.


His parents get their news from Russian state television and believe that the Russian army entered Ukraine to drive the Nazis out and create humanitarian corridors to safety. After expressing outrage about the fact that the Russian army had actually attacked those trying to use the humanitarian corridors, his passion shifted to a sense of compassion for those trapped under the spell of many years of propaganda.


He explained that he came to realize how important it remains, for both Ukrainian and Russian people, that he and others find ways to communicate the ongoing tragedy to their parents and older relatives. He described how they were continuing to reach out and expressed genuine hope that the Russian people could awaken from the heavy spell of propaganda. I found myself released from the immediate tensions and searing presence of the war. I also realized why Karen Horney’s theories about human anxiety and instinctive coping strategies had been on my mind.




Horney was an early follower of Sigmund Freud, but broke away in order to consider the psychology of infants and parents, which she thought had a great bearing on how we cope with fears and anxiety later in life. She suggests that each infant must develop a strategy for coping with “basic anxiety.” She also argues that we tend to use the same coping strategy from our infancy when we encounter crises later in life. In other words, there is a psychological connection between intense fears and anxieties that overtake us in life, and the way we survived traumas early on.


A big surprise came when Horney pointed to “parental indifference” as the root cause of basic anxiety early in each life, but also a key factor in neurotic conditions later in life. A child doesn't have to be treated harshly or be severely rejected in order to experience anxiety and insecurity at a basic level. Indifference on the part of parents at critical points is enough to trigger a deep sense of anxiety that seems to be an inevitable human condition.


That kind of parental indifference seemed to be present in the experience of the man in Ukraine whose parents would not accept their own son's evident feelings of fear, anxiety and loss. In the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the attitude of indifference must be present in millions, including the parents and relatives of those actually under attack. At the same time, that kind of indifference appears in people all over the world who manage to deny the evident tragedies and rampant injustice that characterize all of the human suffering in these troubled times.


Horney states that the first reaction to parental indifference tends to be frustration and anger. Being frustrated by the sense of abandonment causes a child to protest the injustice by crying out. If the parents respond to this angry cry, the child has found a coping strategy that is likely to become their habitual response to life's trials and troubles.


When a child’s “aggressive reaction” does not bring the help they need, they are thrown back into basic anxiety and fears of abandonment. In order to survive, the child must then suppress the anger and somehow win the over the parents. If this strategy works, “compliance” becomes the preferred means of coping for that person. If neither the aggressive strategy nor the compliance strategy works, children cope with basic anxiety by means of withdrawal. In coping with anxiety by withdrawal, the child moves away from the parents, retreats inwardly and tries to become self-sufficient.


The child that adopts the strategy of anger and aggression concludes that “if I have power no one can hurt me.” The child using the strategy of compliance or connecting carries the sense that “if I can make you love me, you will not hurt me.” The child who must cope with a strategy of withdrawal follows the idea that "if I withdraw, nothing can hurt me."


The three ways of coping with basic anxiety can also be seen as three distinct conceptions of a child's inner self. The first being, I am as big as or bigger than the world. The second being, I must adjust to the world. And the third being, I must appear smaller in the world.


These psychological insights ring true, partly because they parallel defensive strategies found throughout the animal realm in patterns of fight, submission or flight in the face of danger. Being conscious of these deeply ingrained attitudes becomes more important as the world around becomes more troubled and both collective and personal anxieties increase.


Part of what intrigued me with the Ukrainian son trying to communicate with his parents in Russia, was that he seemed to go through all three strategies. At first, he was angry and frustrated and outraged that his parents were indifferent to his suffering and the suffering of all the other people in Ukraine. After that, he went through a sense of withdrawal before realizing that over time a way of compassion would be needed to reestablish some kind of basic connection with parents and other relatives.



As someone who learned the aggressive coping strategy early on, I do not instinctively go to a withdrawal strategy to get some respite or relief from tragic events. But, I do remember that in the midst of intense protests that used aggressive strategies against war, the compelling cry of "make love, not war" would arise as if on cue from the collective psyche. There had to be a limit to strategies that were solely against war. There needs to be a conscious strategy to stay connected to love and mutual care, even in the midst of war.


It seems highly unlikely that Putin or Trump or any of the other overly forceful characters on the world stage, who continually double-down on raw aggression will adopt one of the other modes. However, the rest of us who must suffer through and struggle with the great crises and sorrowful tragedies of these dark times will need to learn ways to keep finding love and building interconnectedness, even while we stand up against the war on humanity, freedom, and justice.


We need to learn new ways to retreat and find refuge for our own souls, just as we pray for those being forced to tread in the darkness of this troubled world. At this critical point in the collective life of humanity, when we are all subject to a cascade of worldwide, anxiety-inducing issues like the climate crisis, the Covid crisis and the crisis of wars against our basic humanity, we each need all three strategies to survive, to heal and to help transform the world.


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