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Parapsychology and Gun Control in the USA

Paul Shirley - 1/31/2013

"Parapsychology does not generate a sufficient number of hypotheses, which can be subjected to scientific testing. This has to do with its fabulous (i.e., storytelling) nature. In a way, Parapsychology has affinity with some private languages. It is a form of art and, as such, is self-sufficient and self-contained. If structural, internal constraints are met, a statement is deemed true within the Parapsychology “canon” even if it does not satisfy external scientific requirements."

Vaknin, Sam. South American Herald. Jan 25, 2013.

I, like many other Americans, have been recently bombarded with the spate of hotly emotional debates and painful discussions on gun control that have raged ever since the terrible shootings at Sandy Hook School.

When I read Dr. Vaknin's words in the first paragraph, I had been for the previous weeks already steeped in those national debates. That is likely the reason why it suddenly occurred to me that Dr. Vaknin's comments on parapsychology could apply equally well to the psychological structures underlying the high emotional pitch of the American gun control debates. There is no doubt in my mind as to what the real underlying issue is: it is America's tenuous, fragile, and false self-image.

In America , we have our own "fabulous (i.e., storytelling) nature." We tell ourselves stories about our beginnings, and we believe them - even when they are nothing but the destructive myths of a dysfunctional and addictive family, a family that preys on its own members. Our American truth, similarly, is "self-sufficient and self-contained." We cherish our stories, even when outsiders detest the arrogance that seems to go into the maintenence of some particularly off-putting tales. We nevertheless have our own "structural, internal constraints" that we feel alleviate us from all feedback from outside our own borders. But why are we that way? Why does a description of parapsychology, existing on the borderline between reality and fantasy, seem to describe our nation?

Psychologists have long emphasized that self-image is the biggest key to an individual's personality, mind, and behavior. Dr. Vaknin has left no stone unturned in exploring the topic of self-image in his quest to find the real nature of narcissism - a condition he views as being largely a profound disturbance in the self-image. Do the principles of individual psychology apply equally well to nations and cultures? Probably not. However, that does not mean that we cannot use those same tools as a way of exploring the minds of nations and cultures.

The identity of a culture is inextricably linked to the environment of it's origin. Old Scandanavian myths, for example, warn of ice demons, whereas Semitic myths warn of fire demons. Group perceptions of the greatest threats to life in the geographical locale become the demons, and things in the environment that support and enhance life become the angels. The living water of the New Testament is perhaps the same as the fire and warm mead of the Viking Sagas.

America, however, is unique in that regard, because the birth of America took place before the inhabitants were ever in that geographical environment. In the ship bound for America, the Arbella, there were as yet no mountains from which to fall, no great lakes in which to drown, and no hungry man-eating wild animals to feast on us two-legged creatures. In that dearth of information, one particular Puritan lawyer named John Winthrop began telling his comrades bound for America about crucial aspects of their identity - where they came from, where they were going, and why they were going there.

The historical facts are clear on those matters, and there is little room for ambiguity. The 1500's were a time of expansive colonialism, both as commercial ventures, and as quests for new lands and wealth by optimistic governments. America was to be one more thrust toward colonial expansion, set in motion by a mercantile group under the authority of the British queen. There was nothing particularly unique that set the American expedition apart from similar expeditions to Cuba, Haiti, Africa, and South America. The American colonists had extra motivation in the form of religious conflict, which was taking place in both Britain and the European continent at the time, which was largely persecution of Protestants by the Roman Catholic Church. So essentially the band of American Puritans were on their way to Massachusetts jointly motivated by running for their lives away from the terror of the British crown, with mercantile colonialism providing the path of escape.

Those two simple facts were, however, not the story told to the Puritan travelers on board the the Arbella the spring of 1630. Rather, John Winthrop told the Puritans in a still-famous speech that they were running away from tyranny (which was true enough) and were headed toward a new land in which they would with God's help build "a City on a Hill" which was to be a shining example to other nations of the world.

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers readers a choice between seeing Winthrop as a "visionary utopian" or a "social reactionary." My expertise lies in the field of psychopathology, however, and it presents several other ways to view Winthrop. Let me first present the disclaimer that I was taught to view the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and the founding fathers as being nearly sacred figures, from the time I was a child. I have a fondness for those stories - "fabulous" stories, in the words of Dr. Vaknin - and I still have respect for those people. I get cold shivers up my spine when I hear the Star Spangled Banner, our national anthem. I am as deeply emotionally invested in our national myths as anyone, because I love my country the same way I love my family -- flaws and all. The difference between me and my fellow countrymen who love America in a naive way is simply this -- I do not think it does any favor, either to a family or to a nation, to overlook its flaws intentionally. Anyone whose love for an individual or a group requires blindness to their flaws is not really loving. Rather, he is fantasizing. It serves no purpose to pretend that a sick family is not sick, or that an alcoholic is not an alcoholic - it only prolongs the pain and the suffering. That is the type of love I believe in, and I feel that same love towards my country. If I cannot look her flaws squarely, without flinching, in hopes that we can make her better, then she is perhaps better off without my love.

I have planted my flag on both grounds, of scientifically based truth and of love from the heart. This I say that love of our country impels us to look unflinchingly at the birth of America, the birth that took place in the minds of the Puritans led by a highly religious Puritan lawyer on board the Arbella in the Spring of 1630. In the interest of full disclosure, I was raised as the son of a preacher, and my collective experiences as a "preachers' kid" have led me to look relentlessly for psychopathology (in the noteworthy words of Dr. Wayne Oates, a minister and psychologist) behind the religious mask. Although real religion is a beautiful thing, sick religion, mentally ill religion, is the opposive. It is a living nightmare. I naturally question John Winthrop's religion with the same spotlight I use to question any other religion. With that in mind, my question naturally arises -- did John Winthrop have religious delusions? Or worse -- did he have sociopathic tendencies?

In conducting my own informal research on this topic, I arrived at a piece of very disquieting information. When I compared the circumstances, the idealogy, and the rhetoric of John Winthrop with those of another inspiring religious man, the leader of another group who relocated to a different continent, I can find little to distinguish John Winthrop from Jim Jones, the infamous leader of Jonestown

The single difference between the two men is that Congressional scrutiny on Jim Jones in Jonestown was much closer than was Parliamentiary oversight of John Winthrop in Massachusetts. The result was that while Jones' new world perished, Winthrop's survived -- and thrived.

I do not like this comparison any more than I expect anyone else to. I know that John Winthrop's statue still stands in Washington DC, and I understand that many people (including his descendants) still revere him today. I will just say that I likewise revered my own father, a minister, up to the point when I first began attending meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics in the spring of 1989. At that point, my false worship of my own father, based largely on terror, began a long transformation into mature a love of my father despite all his flaws, both large and small.

It is impossible to love a person without also loving the flaws that make them who they are. It is not necessary for one to have studied the Greek tragedies to understand that simple fact. I believe that we all know it, deep within ourselves. In America, however, I do not believe that we collectively love John Winthrop, because as yet I have never heard anyone discuss his flaws - and evidence strongly suggests to me that he suffered from at least one mental illness.

Is this who America is? A tale told by a madman? Is this the source of our sour relations with much of the rest of the world? Do we still believe that we represent a city on a hill, a beacon to the rest of the world? Looking from within my vantage point, we Americans do not look very much like a beacon of light to me. We sometimes - to use Shakespeare's sad words -look more like "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Grief rips my heart as I type those words. Similiar grief, however, has ripped my heart as I have both heard and presented news of a poor prognosis to clients and families with alcoholism, drug addiction, destructive personality disorders such as the narcissism that Dr. Vaknin knows so terribly well, and chronic mental illnesses. Grief is here, but grief is the pathway, not the destination. If my professional training has taught me the truth, then what can we Americans do if we are a tale told by a madman, crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the Spring of 1630 on a ship called the Arbella?

I say we must walk the same path as the courageously recovering addict -- and even conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh agrees that the Twelve Steps of recovery, plus the honesty that is necessary to traverse those steps, would be a good thing for everybody. We must stop thinking of ourselves in absolutes. We are not the best, and we are not the worst. As a nation, we have done bad things - doubt it not. But as a nation, we have also done good things. Perhaps we achieved our peak in the aftermath of World War II, when we had just finished destroying fascism. Yet, during that same time, speaking as one who grew up in the Deep South, our African American friends and our Native American friends had little or nothing to celebrate along with us, because they were generally not allowed to participate in our wonderful society which had become acknowledged as the temporary world's savior -- almost the City on a Hill that Winthrop had described.

Like any single human being, we as America have good qualities, and we have bad qualities. We need to stop the insane struggle over whether we are wonderful or hideous, however, because we have elements of both. Like our beloved family members, we are both good and bad. Sometimes we are insufferable, like that weird uncle. Sometimes we are generous, like that nice aunt. We can be obnoxious - or so many other countries tell us - and we can be gentle caregivers as fine as any doctor or nurse. The point is that we must step outside of this inner psychological battle, which, I believe, began with the delusional tale of a shining beacon, a city on a hill, that was told to poor, frightened Puritans seeking some shred of comfort and security in an increasingly dangerous and hostile world.

We must dispense with false myths that comfort us like a baby's warm bottle, open our eyes, and see ourselves for who we are. We as a country have never even dealt with the night terrors that we brought with us aboard the Arbella -- Puritan images of a crazed flesh-eating Catholic demon-queen who thirsted for our blood. The threat to our existence as a nation is not Muslims. The threat to our nation is not Jews. It is certainly not Canadian kooks with a dubious passivity and bumper stickers about saving the bears. The real threat to our existence is perhaps best said in the words of Pogo, a comic strip possum whose humility is the source of a folk-wisdom all too lacking in our actual national narrative: "We have met the enemy, and it is us." Our own fears consume us. We require shiploads of drugs, both legal and illegal, to sooth our terrors of the 500 year old witch queen who lives on in our national consciousness.

In reality, we have proven ourselves as a nation. We have nothing left to prove to anyone, except that we can rise to the challenge, dismiss our childhood fears, and get on with the business of responding to events in the world in ways that are constructive, compassionate, and tough-minded. Perhaps we can even take a positive leadership role in all those things, as we have done in the past. Perhaps we can transcend our old styles of leadership, too often based on reactivity, and become creative in our leadership.

Perhaps we can yet become the city on a hill, the beacon to other countries. But only if we take care of our own business first.

I sometimes think that we should cease looking to statues of antiquity for our definition of ourselves. Perhaps we should cease looking to the statue of John Winthrop, of George Washington, and even of our most sacred statues - Lincoln and the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. I sometimes think what we really need is a statue of The Unknown Addict, courageously fighting against terrible internal pain, emptiness, and delusion, because those are the same battles we must fight as a nation if we are to survive.

I love my country, just like I love my family. My father was a wonderful man, who swapped gin for Jesus and became a better person for it. My country is a likewise wonderful country, and I dearly hope that she will swap fantasies about Cities on Hills for everyday reality, and become a better nation for it. My father had to give up his inner struggle of being torn between being worthless and being wonderful. He had to reach the divinely inspired conclusion that he was an ordinary guy, smarter than some, uglier than others, but as beautiful inside as any soul ever was. He gave up the struggle so that he could, in the words that he often quoted from the pulpit, know the truth, so that the truth could make him free. If it worked for him, it can work for all of us. It can work for our nation. I am not talking about religiosity, nor the trappings of religion. I am talking about the deeper truths, the deeper principles of love and acceptance upon which healthy religion is built. I am talking about looking at ourselves in the mirror, and knowing who we are. I am talking about accepting ourselves the way we are. I am talking about trying, working to become better every day, and believing in ourselves. And finally, and most important of all, I am talking about taking our place in the world - not as a fantasy Beacon of Light, but as real people, just like all the other real people in the world.

I would love to think that if we do that, other people in the world would welcome us with open arms.

J. Paul Shirley, MSW was born and raised in the USA, and is co-author of "The Stop Walking on Eggshells Workbook."

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