This Problem of Poverty

I’ve seen a few things across my Facebook recently, ranging from “Welfare is a handout!” to property owners putting spikes outside their front doors (presumably to prevent people from sleeping there–seems like a dangerous liability issue to me). Such comments concern me because they don’t reflect what poverty is. Now, I’m not going to pretend to be a holier-than-thou expert on poverty. Rather, I’d just like to throw my perspective into this very complicated subject. Because I can. So there.

“Poverty” is defined by the OED as “the state of being extremely poor.” “Poor” is then defined as “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” Already, I have a problem with this understanding of poverty. There is an episode of the Twilight Zone that can illustrate this. The episode is 1961’s “Rip Van Winkle Caper” (season 2). A group of men steal a ton of gold and hide in a secret cave, cryogenically freezing themselves until their crime blows over. The plan was to wake up, and be free and wealthy. Not all of the men wake up–their machines were damaged–and the remaining men end up fighting amongst themselves for how they were going to divide the gold. In the end, one man is left, and goes in search of civilization. Since this show is filmed in California, the search for civilization inevitably involves a trek through the American desert. Along the way, he trades a bar of his gold for a sip of water. Eventually, he spends his last brick of gold, but dies from dehydration all the same. The man who watched him die, gets back into his car with his wife, and tells her: “Can you imagine that? He offered this to me as if it was really worth something.” (Rod Serling was a genius.) In another example, Sir Thomas Moore (1516) envisions a Utopia where gold isn’t a currency, but instead marks the slaves apart from the rest of the citizens.

My point is that what defines “money” is subjective to a society. What we use to define money this year will eventually change (perhaps not during my lifetime, but that depends on whether one is listening to the ecologists or not). More importantly, as long as one lives in a system of Civilization, understood from an anthropological viewpoint as a means of managing a large number of people in a fashion that necessarily requires a hierarchy, there will be poverty. In any society where there is a class system (manifest or latent), there will be poverty. Someone has to be excluded from the privileged class, and, historically, it’s the largest percentage of the population within the society. This is not the result of “lower classes breeding too much” or any such nonsense. Nor is this the result of “poorer people have sex more because they’re less educated.” Also baloney. People in privileged states like to tell themselves such stories to justify themselves. So now, I turn to Jung.

In Aion (or CW 9.2 for us hip Jung folks), Jung defines the shadow as:

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. (par 14).

Jung speaks specifically to the individual, but his theories reflect well into the larger society as well. People in poverty, the Poor, or anyone who does not meet the status quo of the privileged, become the social shadow. Think about this: in a Capitalist Democracy (or Republic–whatever the USA is these days), in a society that defines privilege and success on how much money one has, then those that fail to meet those measures are pushed aside.

Let me back up a minute. The “shadow” as Jung uses it is that part of the psyche that is buried in the unconscious. If one imagines the actual shadow (and get a good, long sunset shadow for this image), our bodies represent our conscious selves, while that shadow on the ground represents our unconscious life, formed by our dreams, our experiences, but also by our identity formation that “keeps” certain characteristics in our personality and buries others. The shadow has a tendency to not be ignored. In the individual, the shadow appears that moment when you say or do something uncharacteristic. Or it may weigh you down, leaving you unfulfilled and unsatisfied in life. We all have a shadow. We can deny it, but it will play its part on us if we don’t do something about it:

Unfortunately there can be no doubt that man is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. (CW 11, “Psychology and Religion,” par. 131)

I struggle with Jung’s definition of the “collective shadow.” Much of his writing comes at a time in history when the “collective mind” was something to be avoided in the West, thanks to a fear of Communism and the European events of World War II. So he writes about how the “collective shadow” manifests as war (but I can’t find that quote). In my reading of Jung, it seems that the collective shadow manifests among the people, especially when the enemy cannot be easily identified (just what does a “Terrorist” or a “Communist” look like?). When we start projecting our shadows onto our own people, then we can hear many of the debates that are all over the news these days, and we start hearing buzz words like “entitlement.”

Again the OED: Entitlement is “the fact of having a right to something.” An entitlement isn’t a guarantee. It isn’t even a privilege. It’s simply the “right to something.” So I have a “right” to education, a “right” to welfare, a “right” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And the reason I have these “rights” is because “rights” are “morally good, justifiable, or acceptable.” (again, “morally good” is also definable by the civilization. This kind of subjectivity is why poverty is such a murky issue!)

Confronting the collective shadow of poverty means facing and accepting that a particular dark underbelly of the culture is entitled–has the right to–the same privileges and opportunities of the higher players in the hierarchy. American individualism permits this–by our bootstraps and cunning, we can rise from rags to riches, and we should be rewarded for our hard work. Once power is achieved, no one wants to let it go easily, and the idea that someone could rise from rags to riches threatens that security.

Whenever contents of the collective unconscious become activated, they have a disturbing effect on the conscious mind, and contusion ensued. If the activation is due to the collapse of the individual’s hopes and expectations, there is a danger that the collective unconscious may take the place of reality. This state would be pathological. If, on the other hand, the activation is the result of psychological processes in the unconscious of the people, the individual may feel threatened or at any rate disoriented, but the resultant state is not pathological, at least so far as the individual is concerned. Nevertheless, the mental state of the people as a whole might well be compared to psychosis. (CW 8, “The Psychological Foundation for the Belief in Spirits,” par. 595)

Right now, the USA is in the first state–that pathological state. Our collective shadow is staring us in the face because of a failure of the American Dream to withstand the power of Economics. With the housing crisis seven years ago and the ridiculous amount of student loan debt that is crushing a large piece of the population, those who had to turn to welfare to help them through a phase of poverty changed face from the usual expectations. It was easier as a society to believe that poverty = “minority,” to write off the state of poverty as a problem of the “black people” and the “brown people.” But in the last several years we’ve seen increased numbers of highly educated “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” living in a state of poverty, or hard-working “[black, white, brown, red, yellow] people” in a state of homelessness because of a bad loan or a hurricane. Or older people who find themselves unemployed for longer than the requisite 8-month window because they’re too old, or their skills are outdated, or they are asking for too much. The face of poverty is no longer as clearcut as it used to be.

Is there a solution? Not an easy one, because the first and foremost thing we have to do is rewrite our Myth of Poverty. Anytime such an overturn of ideas needs to happen, it takes at least a generation. A few well-meaning adults (read: “Elders”) have to teach the new generation to see the world in this way, who then come to accept it as the norm. And while this can work, the inter-generational conversations are still speaking different stories, making the tension between New Ways of Thinking and Tradition that much more difficult. I’d like to say we could eradicate poverty, but that would also involve taking away the tax cuts of the wealthy. I’d love to say we can all live in harmony, but that would involve restructuring civilization as a whole. One last Jung quote:

Filling the conscious mind with ideal conceptions is a characteristic of Western theosophy, but not the confrontation with the shadow and the world of darkness. One does not become enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. (CW 13, “The Philosophical Tree,” par. 335)

Poverty isn’t a partisan issue. It exists. How we handle it speaks volumes to how we handle the shadow. When one speaks of “compassion,” it’s meant to motivate us toward Jung’s idea of enlightenment. We can’t all give money to the guy sitting on the corner with his dog. But we can acknowledge how we address poverty in our communities. Pretending it isn’t there isn’t an option. Fighting government bills that increase access to resources shouldn’t be an option either (the hit to the economy of not providing public assistance is far worse than what we do provide). Yes, there are trolls out there who abuse the system, preferring to live in a state of poverty than try to get out of it, but the larger majority of people in poverty would really like to get out of it. Because poverty is a state of mind. It weighs on us like an anvil around the neck, the world on our back, while trying to push a bolder up a mountain all at the same time. Oh, while walking on hot coals.

And yes, I’m speaking to American poverty. Much attention is given to African poverty by major celebrities, who want to address poverty but don’t want to face the problems in their own backyards. The USA is still a country of privilege, but that doesn’t mean we’re distributing our resources wisely. If we want to maintain the illusion that the USA is the world’s anchor, we need to sort out these social issues, among others that run the very real risk of breaking down the Matrix.

[Since all of my books are in boxes, I’d like to thank jungcurrents.com for Jung’s quotes.]

NOTE: One thing I’m not addressing in this post is the perspective of poverty by those who live in it. If poverty is the cultural shadow, as I’m claiming here, then those who live in the state of poverty are the shadow elements. Because I have spent the last year living–struggling–in poverty, I won’t be able to delve into this perspective until I’m in a safe place to heal from the psychic wounds this past year has given me. I invite anyone who is willing and able to share their perspective–of being the shadow, vilified simply for being poor. And with permission, I’d love to share it here.