Your vision will become clear only when you look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakens. – Carl Jung
I came across this fascinating quote one day at a time when many of my fellow New Yorker’s were pondering the possible motives behind the behavior of former Governor Elliot Spitzer. People were baffled, to say the least. Why would someone with so much going for him throw it all away by exercising such poor judgment? One widely held view was that men in powerful positions develop a sense of invincibility, that they imagine they can get away with anything. Perhaps. But it is not this one man’s motives I’m interested in exploring, but our reactions to untoward behavior.
I think that one of the more interesting details concerning Spitzer’s downfall is that he made his legal and political reputation in the role of crusading reformer. How could a reformer have fallen so low? To me, it points to a type of duality we often see evidenced in the human personality. Do you recall the terrific Rolling Stones hit from the sixties Sympathy for the Devil? In it we find the lyric Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints. Mick Jagger understood that despite what qualities we may represent ourselves as possessing (indeed perhaps because of them) we carry within us at least the germ of the opposite characteristic. In Mr. Spitizer’s case it emerged that the high-minded crusader is revealed as one engaging in selfish, hurtful and hypocritical behavior.
One thing I find interesting and revealing about ourselves is the intensity with which we react to a given situation. Picture this: I’m approaching a thruway exit during rush hour. Traffic approaching the exit ramp is already backed up but I’m waiting dutifully, inching along in the right hand lane. Inevitably, some guy (usually in a Lexus or SUV) drives up the left lane, past five hundred yards of cars waiting to exit and guess what… throws on his turn signal and ditches into the head of the line. Now this is discourteous behavior by any definition of the term, but it leaves me speculating about the legal definition of justifiable homicide. I mean I just want to somehow catch up to this guy, pull him from his vehicle and throttle him to within an inch of his life!
Now I am not normally a violent type of guy, but what in the world could create such a powerful and uncharacteristic reaction in me? Am I a latent homicidal maniac? Possibly, but I doubt it. What is more likely is that lurking beneath the veneer of law-abiding, courteous, model citizen is a part of me whose life philosophy is Hooray for me and the hell with you. I’m incensed because there is a part of me that wants to act out the same selfish and antisocial behavior I just witnessed. I’m pissed, in short, because he had the guts to do what I secretly wanted to do but didn’t.
I want to emphasize that in this vein I am not so interested in what was done as the intensity of my reaction to it. I have learned that whenever I encounter a particularly powerful (and usually judgmental) reaction to a given incident, it suggests that there is something going on inside that ought to be examined. And a good place to start to is by asking the question Do I harbor any tendencies within myself similar to those I just witnessed in another? It’s a difficult but important question that merits a thoughtful and considered response. Any quick rush to denial is only additional evidence that something is going on.
The benefits of such honest introspection are as follows: You can’t ask yourself for this type of self-honesty if you have a judgmental or moralistic attitude toward yourself. You couldn’t tolerate the effort. To whatever extent you are capable of honestly looking inside is due to the fact that you have developed a reasonable sense of compassion and understanding. Compassion and understanding are good things. And, to the extent you can be compassionate and understanding with yourself, you can be so with others. This is also a good thing. The more you learn to tolerate and accept impulses or thoughts you may have, the more tolerant and understanding you may be of others when their shortcomings are revealed. This helps develop humility. Think of the guy (possibly even more popular than Mick Jagger) who said Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
This type of strong reaction takes place on the communal as well as the personal level. Think of child molesters. I am not condoning child molesters, but they are reviled even within the prison population. What does this strong sense of revulsion say about us? Is there a part of us so twisted with pain, loneliness and social maladaptivity that it could be tempted to take advantage of the weak, innocent and helpless among us? These people already feel shunned by definition; what they require is treatment and inclusion if the cycle of this type of behavior is ever going to be broken.
But, I’m getting carried way. I think the best point of attack in this exercise in self-exploration is to begin with the little everyday upsets we have in life: someone littering or not holding the door open for you or screaming into their cell phone in the middle of the supermarket. As you grow in your ability to see and accept yourself honestly (and perhaps less perfect than you might have wished you were) you can consider tackling the larger issues. It certainly would be time well spent and help counteract the deleterious effects that increased technological and economic demands are placing on our society.