I was out of town for a conference the weekend the two-part Lance Armstrong interview with Oprah broke and missed it entirely, but the fall-out is hard to miss. Normally I am a bit of a media addict, fascinated and equally reactive to what I consider to be a culture in decline, symptomatic even, of impending collapse. Our priorities seem so out of whack; our values in tatters, our goals absurd. I’m speaking for myself as well as the collective of course. Each of us is quite embedded in our values, beliefs, and behaviors--a result of our upbringing, education, religious ties, political views, social status, and so much more that we tend to take for granted. As a whole, we shore up the culture, buying into the “way things are,” enabling practices that are less than generative.
Regarding the “Lance” story, though--as one of my peers in the Depth Psychology Alliance community recently pointed out--nobody does the kind of thing Lance has done in a vacuum. Our fallen heroes are ours in the making. We collectively have a vested interest in creating heroes and putting them on a pedestal--where the only way out is down.
We need our heroes. Who else are we to worship? America is built on a legacy of heroes: gunslingers, pioneers who conquered the wild west, U.S, marshals, militia, inventors, gold diggers and even the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood in which the Super Friends always came out on top. How are we to dismiss the rugged individuals who actually struck it rich through talent, persistence, guts, and sheer luck? Modern day icons we revere today include sports “heroes,’ celebrities, politicians, and religious leaders among others. We ingrain this quest for success in our children at a very tender age! But do we have a collective tendency to assign larger-than-life (and unrealistic) characteristics to these individuals? They were, after all, never meant to carry such a significant weight and are, in some ways, a scapegoat for a collective culture in which we rely on others to save our bacon, defeat the monsters, and win at all costs when we ourselves often feel powerless and alone when it comes to achieving our dreams.
In my recent Depth Insights radio interview with Dr. Glen Slater, author of the viral article “A Mythology of Bullets” (Spring Journal 2009, “The Psychology of Violence”). Slater mused on our cultural mandate to succeed at all costs with no allowance for failure as the potential catalyst in many tragic shootings. When faced with failure when it comes to achieving the American Dream, many of us resort to seizing power any way we can to avoid being marginalized, ridiculed, or branded as “losers.” How many of our so-called “fallen heroes”--those who have indeed fallen prey to their own human failings, addictions, or mistakes--have only been amplified in the media and in our own minds because we are unable to see and acknowledge our own collaboration in the failure to excel?
As Jungian analyst Michael Conforti points out in his latest blog, “Patterns of the Fall: Lies, Lance and Life Patterns,” Lance Armstrong is possessed by the negative hero archetype. In historical literature and myth, the positive archetypal aspects of the hero (and his journey) involve the hero leaving home to venture into the big bad world where he encounters the guardians of the gate to the underworld and defeats them one by one before returning with his spoils--something of value for the community itself. In the negative aspects of this archetypal pattern, the would-be hero is possessed by the negative aspect of the archetypal energy where he attempts to slay the monsters and grab the prize--but is inhibited by his inflated egoic desire to be like the gods. He wants the power for himself! He acts alone and seeks only glory and recognition.
Is Lance Armstrong truly unique in his actions? I don’t condone at all, of course, what is clearly a history of incessant lies regarding doping; with cheating to “get the edge on his competitors” and claiming immunity because that’s the definition of “cheat’ in the dictionary. Back to my peer in the in-depth discussion on Depth Psychology Alliance, western culture as a whole is fairly drugged and doped--and we take it quite for granted. “Check out the lines at any pharmacy (or the profits from the whole pharmaceutical industry) to see that,” writes ‘Shane’, further pointing out that the lines we encounter at Starbucks every morning so we can all enhance our performance at work is not to be dismissed. "Doping,” for all of us, is an everyday aspect we scarcely call into question.
Finally, our fascination with those who are caught in lies--especially those in the media eye--are not so different that most of us. Case in point: in recent years we have seen the spectacular fall of Tiger Woods, the golf pro caught cheating on his wife with multiple women over the years; the writer James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces) who was exposed for having fabricated much of his so-called auto-biography on addiction; the fallen journalist Jonah Lehrer who is said to have plagiarized himself and made up quotes from famous sources including Bob Dylan to name a few. But who among us has not denied, hidden, or even outrightly lied about something we wished to keep buried about our dark side? A recent article on Lance Armstrong in the L.A. Times boldly calls us all to task with the headline, “Like Lance Armstrong, we are all liars, experts say.” Lance’s lies were simply more public, the southern California publication insists, and the stakes higher than for most of us.
Indeed we are all implicated in this story that seems so seedy at first glance. We are interconnected, guilty of not only feeling inferior, guilty or wrong if we can’t deliver through achievement, goal-orientation, or success but also through the self-satisfaction we derive by seeing someone who failed fall by the wayside (inevitably clearing the path for us to move up.)
While we may not be consciously aware--and some among us actually do manage to transcend this inherent cultural and psychological tendency--what twentieth century pioneer of depth psychology Carl Gustav Jung referred to as the Shadow is alive and well among us. That is, it is easier to recognize the painful, difficult, unwanted and denied parts of ourselves that we really don’t WANT to own in someone OTHER than us. I’m not giving Lance a pass here--be sure of that. His tendency to narcissism and his desire to win at all costs is not to be minimized. A recent article in The Atlantic proclaims “How Aggressive Narcissism Explains Lance Armstrong”--but I don’t believe that’s all there is to the story. I’m just saying that we all contribute to a culture in which the only way to compete is to cheat.
News continues to break this week on other athletes--Lance’s Tour de France teammates and others--who were also in on the doping. But I ask you (and include myself here as well): How many awards shows, competitive events, and sports competitions do YOU endorse by watching or following in a given month? And how long have we, as humans, reified and worshiped the “winners” versus the “losers” in life? This story is as old as time, dating back to the first Olympics, the gladiators of the Coliseum in Rome, and beyond.
America, built on the legacy of our forefathers who succeeded at revolution and established independence at great cost lives on in our minds and even our very cells. We have bought into a culture where there is so little room in our culture for failure, losing, depression, etc. that we strive to "empower" ourselves in any way we can. It's unfortunate in so many ways that we don't have a better system to "tend" our children and adolescents into holding and being with failure as a natural part of life and not amplifying and idolizing this negative hero archetype.
In the end, the truth is not so one-sided. In a society addicted to substances or activities--whether it be caffeine, prescription drugs, media, entertainment, or consumerism or something else--we are all implicated in buying into and enabling a culture that guarantees people will do whatever they have to in order to simply survive from a psychological and social standpoint. We continue to consume, make poor decisions for our well being and for that of our children and our planet, both as individuals and as a collective. Perhaps by better understanding the patterns at play in this particular story, we can begin to come to consciousness and engage with soul.
On that note, I’m looking forward to joining my colleague, Dr. Michael Conforti, to listen to his upcoming (January 31 & February 7) free 2-part teleseminar series, “When the Fairytale Ends: Lies, Lance and Life Patterns” with Olympic Coach Hank Lange as they take a depth psychological perspective on the saga of Lance Armstrong and why it’s important to all of us. I do believe there’s something for each of us to learn about ourselves in this story--which will certainly not be the last, I’m sure.
Bonnie Bright is the founder of Depth Psychology Alliance, the world's first comprehensive online community for depth psychology, and hosts a regular podcast, Depth Insights, as well as editing the semi-annual scholarly e-zine of the same name. She recently founded www.DepthPsychologyList.com, a free online database to find or list depth psychology oriented therapists and practitioners. She holds Masters degrees in Psychology and Depth Psychology, and is a Ph.D. candidate at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA.