Who Suffers? Religion, Psychology and the Creation of Despair

Victim“Victimology,” if there were such a science, would be the study of the emotional reaction of powerlessness, pessimism, and negativity or ultimately of that which is an illusion. In P-A there is no victim because there is no “bad” as referred to in the dichotomy of good and bad and what’s more when profoundly understood, there is no separate “me” to be a victim. One result of having a “victim consciousness” can be self-loathing. Religion in P-B has often supported this illusion by encouraging the self-imposed nonsense of sin.

Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) demonstrated this in his sermons. “The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider or some loathsome Insect over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as Worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the Fire.”  No self-esteem or Self-reliance possible in that theology. That centuries-ago attitude still lives in the collective unconscious of humanity and in the conscious human narrative of most of the world’s societies, and does untold and horrific damage.

Another example of the life-long expression of the victim identity is found in the story of the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). He was a Jew, which made him a scapegoat or the other, a victim of the projections of those around him, which was all too common in nineteenth century Europe. He had the same choice that we all have in life and that is to react or respond to that prejudicial treatment. He chose to react and his survival strategy involved immersing himself in the world of classical music. Perfectionism was a part of that strategy which did not endear him to his fellow musicians but probably did support the result of his becoming a brilliant composer and conductor.

He courageously chose to confront the “big” questions in his music. This is the so-called “theodicy” question, that is, why does God allow bad things to happen to good people or why does a “good” God allow human suffering? In his own words he asks himself the questions: “Why have you lived? Why have you suffered? Has it all been only a huge, frightful joke? We must all somehow answer these questions, if we are to continue, yes, even if we are only to continue dying. Whoever hears this call must give a reply.”  Mahler’s reply is found in his great symphonies such as Symphony No. 2 in C minor (the “Resurrection”).

“The symphony opens with an angry rumble in the basses; and the ‘why’ of human existence is being questioned,” writes Milton Cross  “The questioning continues in the woodwinds, then loudly in the entire orchestra, until it becomes a frenzied outcry. There comes a quiet melody in the horns and strings, as if in reassurance, but the discontent of the opening returns, and before long we are hurled into the midst of a passionate struggle.”

In P-B, life is a passionate, emotional struggle, and for many like Mahler, almost continuous suffering. We can only wonder what his life and music would have been like had he made a different choice and afforded himself that rare opportunity to be a composer in the present moment; a composer whose music was filled with joy and compassion. The energy for the victim-centered melodrama comes from the sensation energy center and consumes our natural joy like a psychological cancer. We identify with being a victim and that frustrates our realizing our true identity which in turn drives our self-destructive behaviors, and our melodramatic “look-at-me” suffering.

The collective victim identity was expressed in an article in Life magazine in 1967. “Is it possible that this country’s artists can sound the fire alarm of a national nervous breakdown on the human level and be met with an assured, optimistic voice on the government, financial and technological levels? It must be either falsehood or pathology when people living within the same society, sharing a common fate, can have such different public pronouncements to make about being alive in America today. Who’s crazy—we or they?”

No one was crazy then or today but virtually everyone gets lost in the illusion of P-B because reality cannot be found there. In that milieu, every change in a society can be “sensationalized” into a threat and analyzed and intellectualized into a “breakdown.” In truth, there have been no changes or threats because Reality does not change. Remember, that which changes is not “Reality,” it is a mere chimera existing as a figment of our false-self mind. We live in a global village where people are terrifying themselves—victims of their own and others’ imaginations. Are we crazy? We would all do well to wonder whether that behavior is a good definition of madness.

We should not expect much help from the human mind as regards our victim status. The intellect is the problem not the solution. Take the supposed experts vis-à-vis the mind and human behavior—our psychiatrists, and sociologists. “We have the word of an army of sociologists and psychiatrists that in the name of competition we emasculate worker and manager alike and turn them into gray-faced, status-seeking consumers. In the name of efficiency we are said to ravage rural landscape and city skyline, creating a festering megalopolis which is the despair of all who look on it.”  We can count on our own mind and the minds of others to aid and abet our self-destructive “victim” tendencies because, after all, they are all engaged in the victim-centered narrative with victim identities too.

In the popular media, we can see P-B and the false self in full array often masquerading as profound insights. Rather than increasing human awareness as to the cause of our suffering, they may be reinforcing the identities and behaviors that are the source of our malaise, our “woe is me” sense of powerlessness, that ennui of the perpetual victim.

For example, we have Lester Burnham in the 1999 film “American Beauty” who says in the first scene at the beginning of the movie, “that he’s a loser who’ll be dead in a year and, in a way, is ‘dead already.’”  We can take Lester Burnham as author Susan Faludi does in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, published in 1999 and use him as an example of the American male as victim. She projects her own reactions within her version of P-B and holds those reactions to be insights into an analytical “truth” concerning the American male as a victim. She unwittingly reinforces the victim mentality that she believes she is exposing. Why are we Americans, male and female, victims? Because we believe we are and we believe those that say we are.

When victims begin to project their shadows “out there” (not knowing what they are really doing of course) their fear-driven imaginations can create an infinite number of enemies, including God, their neighbors, fate or the society itself. “The intangible opponent is what Faludi calls ‘a dehumanizing force that can’t be attacked on traditional battle lines,’ specifically a society that values youth and wealth over substance and responsibility.”

Sometimes, almost accidentally, in our reactions we will hit upon a partial truth. Our intuition will give us an accurate insight and we will name it but fail to follow up on it. We have no overall context in which to fit that piece of the puzzle. Faludi is correct in naming P-B, the societal community as the toxic source that is “attacking the American male.” But she “sees” only her own imagined symptoms in the general expression of the collective false self of the entire American society and imagines a “cause” that is in effect not there. As in hand-grenades and horseshoes, somewhat close but her score is still “zero.”

Nevertheless, we recognize Faludi’s description of the false-self survival strategy where human activity is expressed in the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. The problem she says “is a culture in which neither men nor women feel useful to a society, and in which both men and women feel valued by how much they can acquire [plenty], consume [pleasure as in food] and display [power].”

The content of her book came from interviews of men (victims) who, of course, were willing to share their “everything and everyone is working against me” story. “Faludi’s conclusion, after spending time with downsized aerospace engineers, laid-off industrial workers, Vietnam vets, youth gang members, evangelical Christians and others, is that American men are struggling with a crisis.”  Judging from her hand-picked “victims,” Faludi might have had her conclusion in mind before she started her book project but her conclusion was correct anyway.

We could interview any sociological slice of the global village population and find that they are dealing with a “crisis” because they are, we all are. We just don’t realize yet what that crisis is. But Faludi was correct in characterizing the cause of the crisis as a “dehumanizing force.” We can all sympathize with Faludi when she concludes that the men were “left with the sense that a meaningful life is eluding them. One man compared it to playing the same guitar chords over and over, without ever bringing them to a harmonic resolution.”

This probably brings to mind for many of us Phil the weatherman in the film “Groundhog Day” living the same day over and over, frustrated in his attempt to truly “wake up.” His solution was to stop the self-pity and look to serving others. Compassion was the cure for his neurotic self-involvement.

And yet, with our latest technology, we have never been more connected in our communities. Opportunities for serving others would seem to be ever more available. “Yet some men she interviewed admitted that the gadgets they love—cell phones, laptops, digital cameras and other gadgets that target American men—also ‘were almost emasculating … a poor, painful compensation for not being connected in the ways men truly seek.’”  In short, there is no way to win in P-B.

The victim mentality is one of endless imagination and the men in Faludi’s book have only to “look around” to find some explanation for their emotional reactions. Erich Kirshner, a 38-year-old Denver public relations manager says it might be an inability to grow up (a kind of Peter Pan phenomenon?). “And—though it’s not what I feel—I hear a lot of men saying, ‘I keep waiting for myself to grow up.’ Guys my age and older. They say, ‘I keep waiting to grow up, and now I realize that it’s probably never going to happen.’”

We can imagine that being stuck in P-B can feel like Peter Pan suspended in a time warp because the false self is a childish, confused, even dream-like state. Kirshner, hoping his third child will be a boy has anxieties about that event. “How can you raise a son if you don’t have a clear idea of what he should aspire to?”

Kirshner’s anxiety is created by the absence in P-B of wholesome beliefs, attitudes and values, the “lighthouses” that would guide our ship-of-life safely into port. What we have in P-B are pseudo-lighthouses blinking erratically all over the horizon.  “It’s a weird, weird world for men today. You get signs that it’s gone too far on either end—macho men vs. the sensitive New Age guy—and you don’t know which way to go.”

When there is no confusing and vague societal expectation to confuse and bedevil men there is always the other to imagine and blame. “The men she interviewed shared a sense of struggling against an intangible enemy. Some focus their anger by putting a face on their opponent—illegal aliens, feminists (especially Hillary Clinton), liberals, conservatives, equal-opportunity advocates, gay rights supporters, the notorious New World Order and its mythical black helicopters.”

And so it goes, round and round we go, turning first here and then there in a maze that we have no hope of ever emerging from as long as we insist in believing we are the victim of our experience and not the creators of it. Fourteen years later (2013) Hillary Clinton is still around for those who fear women to project upon; feminists, including Faludi are still failing to find their proper “place” with the acceptable domestic’s apron costume; illegal aliens and immigrants are more numerous than ever for the unemployed and underemployed to blame; and now the gays want to get married and destroy the family; and women are increasingly the breadwinners and degree-holders; and black helicopters have been replaced by drones and “black sites.” And yes, only the details have changed, the victims remain the same.

The victim in P-B is as old as civilization itself. “Probably the world’s first alienated man on record was the anonymous Egyptian scribe who some 4,000 years ago wrote, ‘No more do we hear anyone laugh … Great men and small agree in saying: ‘Would that I had never been born’ … the masses are like timid sheep without a shepherd … Oh that man could cease to be, that woman should no longer conceive and give birth. Then, at length, the world would find peace.”  We may not like to hear it, but if we are alienated from our society, ourselves and one another, it is because we choose to be. We may not make that choice consciously, but we choose, nevertheless, to be the victim.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Who Am I? The Second Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Where Am I?  The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival

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