When I was about 14 years old, my father angrily chased me out of the house and down the block as I laughed gleefully. I don’t remember exactly what caused the altercation but I was undoubtedly behaving like a snotty brat. Later, I stole back into the house and overheard my mother trying to calm my father: “He’s just a teenager. He can’t control his hormones.” This moment changed my life. I remember vowing right then and there that I would never allow my emotions to get the better of me. (And in doing so, I could feel superior to my father, who had a short fuse.)
Indeed, I succeeded in almost completely repressing my anger and even today I almost never get angry. A few years ago, I thought I must be abnormal. What’s wrong with me that I can’t get angry? Whenever something bad happened, instead of getting angry, I would get depressed, turning my emotions against myself, telling myself I was a pathetic loser. So I decided to try an experiment. When something disappointing happened, instead of telling myself I was pathetic, I would try to get internally angry, lashing out in irrational rage at whatever was disappointing me. I started memorizing Eminem lyrics and would go on internal tirades filled with profane expressions whenever the urge to become depressed hit me. I wouldn’t outwardly express that anger, only indulging angry thoughts and feelings. And it worked! These irrational tirades only lasted as long as I wanted, after which I would feel better and could move on with my life.
Weaknesses, not Faults
Carl Jung taught that all human emotions, including undesirable emotions like anger and aggression are natural instincts that can never be destroyed, only repressed. When we repress these unwanted instincts, they become what Jung called “shadows,” which sometimes come back to haunt us in unexpected ways. We all know priesthood holders who make a big show of righteousness at church, but if you ask their wives, they could tell you some fine stories about their husband’s emotional outbursts at home. These outbursts are manifestations of our shadows, sometimes exploding in pent-up rage in private, even while they are kept bottled up in public.
Rather than repressing them, Jung believed we must face our shadows and come to terms with them. He spoke of “holding the tension of the opposites” as a basis of working with the shadow. For example, one might have a tyrannical shadow on the one hand, and an overly tolerant and permissive shadow on the other. Ideally, these two shadows should balance each other out: a sense of justice balanced by mercy, aggression balanced by tolerance. The LDS hymn “School Thy Feelings” states:
School thy feelings oh my brother,
Tame thy warm, impulsive soul.
Do not its emotions smother,
But let reason’s voice control.”
The Book of Mormon speaks of “bridling passions,” not repressing them. Even Jesus the Prince of Peace threw the money changers out of the temple declaring they were a “den of thieves.” He had no qualms about insulting Scribes and Pharisees with the most contemptuous epitaphs. If we are “trying to be like Jesus” that means we too can feel anger and even express it at times.
The Book of Mormon says “I will make weak things become strong.” It does NOT say, “I will eliminate faults.” A hot temper is not a fault. It is a weakness. Weaknesses are to be strengthened, not eliminated. In the past, doctors routinely removed tonsils and gall bladders, thinking of them as superfluous or sometimes harmful organs. But today, doctors recognize that every organ in the body has its purpose, and ideally should never be removed. It is no different with our many emotional and psychic instincts: fear, courage, wrath, love. Strengthening and balancing these instincts is the goal, not eliminating them.
In LDS culture, weaknesses are sometimes seen as faults that need to be rooted out, not muscles that need to be strengthened. Pornography addiction is interpreted as the result of Satanic lusts that must be eliminated, rather than an imbalance of natural instincts. Doubts are seen as Satanic weeds planted by anti-Mormon literature, rather than a natural skepticism which must be balanced with faith.
Peace Through Controlled Violence
Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book Angels of our Better Nature: Why Violence Has Declined presents compelling evidence that we are living at the most peaceful time in human history. Over the past 5 decades violent crime has steadily declined even as violence in media has become ever more prevalent. This was not supposed to happen. Crusaders against violence in the video game and film industry warned that violence onscreen will inevitably translate to more violent behavior. Why hasn’t that happened? Pinker cites numerous reasons for the decline of violence in society, but fails to account for the strange paradox of evermore ubiquitous media violence. Is it possible that increasing media violence could actually discourage real violence by providing a safe, proxy outlet for natural human aggression? Or is the decline of violence in society so pronounced that it overcomes even the pejorative influence of increased media violence?
It might be argued that violent video games could be a better outlet for natural aggression than bullying and street crime. I’ve been impressed with the mythical appeal of role-playing games like World of Warcraft and the archetypes they tap into. Jungian psychologist Robert Moore noted the many violent films that celebrate aggression as a manifestation of the “warrior” shadow. Every person has a warrior archetype in them whether it is a repressed shadow or a prominent part of their conscious ego. Even when not fighting a war, the warrior archetype within each of us serves an important purpose: defending and fighting for turf and assets, even when those assets are domestic or business related, or even defending and crusading for positive values in society.
American football is one of the most violent of all sports, claiming at one time 18 lives in a single year (1905), with death and mental illness still a frequent consequence of repeated head injuries. How did this gladiatorial sport become the most popular of all American pastimes? After the Civil War, young men no longer had the opportunity to prove themselves in battle, and this provoked a crisis of manliness in the US. Football became extremely popular around this time because it provided a perfect opportunity for men to unleash their inner warrior in a disciplined, regulated environment. Today organized sports like football still help keep thousands of youths off the streets.
Media Violence: a Psychological Analysis
When I was younger, I remember having dreams about murdering people. After such dreams I sometimes wondered whether I was a potential psychopath. Later I learned that murderous dreams are very common and they often represent the conscious mind trying to destroy an unwanted aspect of the unconscious. Something similar to a dream-state happens when we watch movies. Our conscious ego identifies with the good guys, and our unconscious shadows identify with the bad guys. We rejoice at good guys killing bad guys because it reflects an internal war we are waging with our own inner demons.
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is an uber-violent film depicting the vengeful rampage of a former slave upon evil southern slave owners. In the final scene, Django rescues his wife from the wicked plantation owners, killing everyone in a glorious orgy of righteous indignation. I had a positively transcendent feeling as I watched, similar to one I felt as a missionary reading Doctrine and Covenants: “I have trampled them in my fury, and their blood have I sprinkled upon my garments for this was the day of vengeance which was in my heart.” It was almost as if I was experiencing something sacred: “the ax is laid at the root of every tree, and every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hew down and cast into the fire.” I was witnessing my conscious ego (my own sense of self-righteousness) slay my shadows (my subconscious identification with the wicked slave owners.)
In more sophisticated films like The Godfather, we sometimes identify with the bad guys, allowing our inner shadows to come to light. Al Pacino’s character starts out as a good guy, an “everyman,” a young war vet, someone we all identify with and understand. Gradually he is swept up into the path of violence, and begin to see the potential within ourselves to do likewise. Such a psychological journey can be emotionally beneficial, even if we only perceive it subconsciously.
In the end, any violence, whether subconciously or consciously perceived, is not a positive thing in and of itself. There is a time for destruction, and there is a time to build. Too great a focus on destruction is unbalanced. It could be that too much media violence does indeed have negative effects on people. At the same time I don’t think media violence can categorically be said to be evil, any more than murders in our dreams at night are evil. They are symbols of an eternal struggle which is intrinsic in our nature, one which must be accounted for. Our scriptures are R-rated, our dreams are R-rated, our ancestors created our society through R-rated behavior, our subconscious is R-rated. We cannot repress the R-rating of our natural identity without repercussions. What is needed is balance.
- Do you agree that it is better to balance and strengthen our passions, than try to repress or eliminate them?
- Does controlled violence (in sports and media) have a positive place in society?
- Can anger be a good thing, and if so, how can it be properly tamed?