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Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 8.2 (2003) 232-237

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Venturing Past Psychic Numbing:
Facing the Issues

Robert J. Gregory

We have, or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ore gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only.

—Fred Hoyle

There is an almost gravitational pull toward putting out of mind unpleasant facts. And our collective ability to face painful facts is no greater than our personal one. We tune out, we turn away, we avoid. Finally we forget, and forget we have forgotten. A lacuna hides the harsh truth.

—Daniel Goleman

Introduction to Psychic Numbing

In that frightening era from the 1950s to the 1980s and perhaps even part of the 1990s, the only way many of us managed to maintain our psychological health was by making use of psychic numbing. Intelligent, well educated, alert to the physical and human environment, and aware of the potential disasters that could come from the presence of nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry, we individually and collectively withdrew our minds from contemplation of the awesome possibilities of a nuclear holocaust. We concentrated to the best of our abilities on other, more pleasant, aspects of living. Further, we were so convinced by the sheer scale of the military-industrial establishment, the awesome power of the nuclear bombs, and the huge security force assembled to provide guard, that resistance would be totally futile anyway. More than any technology of the past, the bomb meant that running away was impossible.

Every now and then an event, announcement, prediction, or other warning triggered our minds into fleeting moments of panic, alleviated only by our subsequent withdrawal of attention to what could happen. Truly, the nuclear age was a time of psychic numbing.

Released partially from those particular worries by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the slow dismantling of the "Evil Empire," we are only now coming to grips with other very real problems. These include the damage to the environment that has already taken place, the massive costs of cleaning up environmental pollution, the continued potential of nuclear war by accident, the spread of nuclear capabilities to other countries or agencies, and the population problem that threatens to ravage the entire earth. More recently we have learned about the potential and realities for financial and economic collapse, terrorism and bio-terrorism, global warming, and some of the potential dangers of genetic engineering. Numerous other major concerns may join the present cascade to generate a veritable unstoppable onslaught. We are anxious and fearful, and yet we are strangely quiescent. We live our lives as if these problems were distant, as if "we'll be all right."

Too, we are also becoming more aware of the previously hidden potentials, the ideals set aside for so long, dreams of peace, joy, and harmony on earth. Perhaps we are now looking deeper at the other side of the so-called evil empire—that is, we are reflecting on and understanding better our own selves and our own Western culture. Indeed, we may be learning about our role as contrary, opposite, nemesis and yet, partner, ally, friend, and co-dependent with the former evil empire, as the Soviet Union was labeled, and other peoples and nations. We are certainly sharing in a virtual global explosion of connections, information, and ideas via the Internet. This ferment is enabling us to examine both positive and negative options, alternatives, and futures as never before. Paradise lies seemingly [End Page 232] within reach, while wars, conflicts, and terrorism continue to reign.

The Western world, of course, has its own cultural baggage: witness rampant monopolistic capitalism, a foreign policy that...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 232-237
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2003
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