Wounded Society

So much already has been written about the shocking events at Penn State, often with justifiably deep outrage. I, too, want to wail.

There are, after all, so many kinds of victims:

• the children

• the families

• the students

• the players

• the fans

• the community

• the country

• all of us — anyone at all who knows.

We could also add to this list, depending on your perspective, the perpetrator and the men who failed “to do more.”

All are wounded by these events. The perpetrator himself, who led with his own wounds, will most likely pay for them for the rest of his life.

And now so much confusion, side-taking, competing views of what to do, and the need for explanations, investigations, exoneration or blame.

Yet none of that will really do — ever. That’s the nature of a wound to society. There is only the shock and clawing grief that it has happened — something we must live with whether or not we can ever “understand” what occurred.

In the end we only have the pain of facing our humanness and our capacity for such moral failure. It would be easy to separate ourselves, to say this is not me, not you. We are not capable of such things. But the nature of the Shadow in all of us, and in society itself, is precisely this misbegotten belief. The events at Penn State are a mirror of what human beings are eminently capable of — that’s really what scares the heck out of us. We can be weak. We can be depraved. And all the explanations of how those who covered up were simply caught up in their own power and anything that might jeopardize it, cannot turn out the lights on what is to be seen in that very harsh mirror of the soul. We don’t like to “go there.” We want to believe we can simply manage according to our strengths and pretend to ourselves that all else can be forgiven. This is the signal of an immature culture, one that makes self-confrontation something that others should do, but we do not have to do for ourselves. The irony of the Shadow is that we are headed straight for it when we claim that we don’t hold any darkness within us.


The most difficult part is the realization that we are in part those children. We are in part also those families. We are those fans and players, that community — and yes, a part of us is also the perpetrator and those who gave the perpetrator permission — and this is especially true every single time we say to ourselves “not my problem.” Because that’s exactly how this occurred. Somebody else did this. Not me. I’m not guilty. I am not responsible for what happened to the others. And each one of these “not me’s” wounds society just a little more.

I personally do not think the perpetrator and his accomplices were overwhelmed with their own power so much as they simply did not feel responsible for what happened to others. And this is the perfect result of that darkest shadow side of American individualism, this outrageous betrayal of society, which is about hurting others with impunity — and then excusing ourselves and speaking through lawyers before the mirror indeed becomes too bright. This sordid core on the other side of precious individualism is what Americans have to look at right now. How many more times will it need to be rubbed in our faces that this is a society with a flawed sense of society, one that that is wounding itself in the name of a steadily maintained unconsciousness about the real impacts of our lost mutuality?

Penn State is a symptom. Not much different than other symptoms. The perpetrators that caused and are continuing to cause financial collapse, and the widening gap between rich and poor, conservative and liberal is another symptom of the same disease of lost mutuality — so well described in a recent article by Bill Moyers. This is what you get when you build institutions and businesses and a whole underlying culture based on the overuse of saying “yes” to ourselves and “no” to anybody else.

We need to regain — maybe reclaim is the better word — a sense of meaningful, humane balance. Individualism is good when its primary results are courage, initiative, confidence and self-worth, a unique and meaningful life, the ability to stand up to oppression. But that essential personal power must be balanced also with the power to love and give selflessly, the power to work together collaboratively and to trust, and the power to do the right and ethical thing. Our society is far, far out of balance right now, and incidents are likely to come more frequently until at last we give ourselves a chance to look once more at our birthright, as the founders of this great country did, deciding for ourselves what a good society really is. It’s time to take stock because right now we are creating a new kind of oppression for ourselves and others based on what one writer called, a culture of rape. I take that term to include but also go beyond sexual exploitation to human exploitation, which starts in big and little ways with making other people into things we are no longer responsible for.

If we can face that in our hearts and souls, then I think the healing will find a good place to begin.


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  • Jack McKenna wrote:

    Hierarchy … A genetic Faustian bargain.

  • Wow, Dan, you’ve really packed it in here – integrating the “shadow side of American individualism”, a “flawed sense of society”, “lost mutuality” … and “The irony of the Shadow is that we are headed straight for it when we claim that we don’t hold any darkness within us”.

    I hope that the various flavors of the “occupy” movement may [also] help bring more of this darkness into the light.

  • @Jack, it’s great to hear from you! I’m not sure how genetic hierarchy truly is, but it sure feels like it sometimes. Clearly, hierarchy is one of the parties to the Penn State tragedy. Apparently in this case, it created a sense of immunity based on confusing privileged groupthink with reality.

    @Joe The occupy movement is a natural response to oppression. That some cannot understand its presence is evidence of the unconscious loss of mutuality I refer to in the post. I agree with Moyers that this is an opportunity to “rekindle” the dream. It’s probably a very good idea once in awhile to go look afresh at the design principles of our country, lest we stop thinking for ourselves.

    Thanks to both of you for stopping by!

  • Kia ora Dan,
    Wholeheartedly agree with the notion America, and much of the world, is out of balance. Penn State, and most any major college Division 1 football programs have become the major money spinners for universities, coaches being paid millions, blind eyes being turned in all directions. We pay men tens of millions because they throw a ball fast or accurate, or run fast, jump high, or become the director of a large company. It becomes what we aspire to become, and want to become like. In my home state of Wisconsin the government is attacking the teachers, nurses, unions, and pointing the finger at them for being too greedy. It seems to me, many of those theachers, nurses,are the real heroes. Just a few thoughts.

  • Rob — “It becomes what we aspire to become, and want to become like.”

    Highlighting how that happens raises a powerful question, “Is it really?” and emphasizes the choices we actually have before us.

    And I’m in total agreement with you about who the real heroes are.

    Thanks for writing and for adding your insights! (You live is a stunning beautiful place.)

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