Are You Caught In America's "Money Complex"?

Awareness of America's infatuation with money leads to a more meaningful life

Posted Aug 06, 2013

It is a bedrock American belief that our financial struggles are ours alone to shoulder. But in Part Two of my interview with Jungian psychoanalyst Thomas Singer, M.D., editor of Spring Journal Publications’ series Analytical Psychology & Contemporary Culture, he further explores how we're all in the grip of America’s “money complex.” In the following edited version of our conversation, Singer examines the corrosive effects of this cultural complex on our collective and individual well being, as well as the nugget of real gold it conceals.

Pythia: If America were a client on your couch, how would you diagnose the source of these symptoms of narcissism and obsession with money and consumerism?

Singer: Historically, the American identity has been strong. Our vast Western lands opened horizons for expansion; the Industrial Revolution opened horizons for technological development; we survived both the Civil War and the Great Depression; and we conquered our enemies in two World Wars. These feats generated a tremendous sense of resilience, self-confidence and resourcefulness.

But as a psychologist viewing the country as a patient, I think we’ve become over-identified with the accomplishments of the “cultural ego.” We’ve done so well, we believe that this is all of who we are. What we don’t identify with is what gets tossed into the unconscious -- our sense of emotional and spiritual impoverishment, disconnection from the earth, our origins in other countries, and our vulnerabilities and failures.

So if I were treating the country on the couch, I’d want to ask about these repressed parts of the American self. The problem arises when America’s vulnerabilities enter the political arena in the guise of poverty, health care, immigration or other debates, because it divides the country and provokes a defensive response: Go somewhere else if you feel that way!

Pythia: Has money become a source of security and emotional fulfillment, to the exclusion of everything else?

Singer: On a cultural level, money does all sorts of good things, such as increasing trade and communication. But it’s not so much the part around money that’s healthy and well functioning we’re examining: It’s the way in which our culture as a whole gets caught by it and over-identified with it, and where money has become a substitute for other things.

Pythia: And those other things would be?

Singer: The value in human connections; appreciation for life as it is; nature; education or art -- all these things can get swallowed up by our money complex. In fact part of our complex around money is that it becomes a game that possesses us. Then we have to spend money to fly away to some remote place where things are simpler and we can start to feel those essential parts of life again.

Pythia: Money has to do with value: Is there something meaningful at the core of our money complex that has become distorted over time?

Singer: We could speculate that at the core of America’s money complex is the idea that a sense of well-being is a birthright for all Americans, and that we’re entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: That’s democracy. It came out of a glorious vision of a better life for many people, which then got corrupted by people eager to make as much money as they could as quickly as they could.

Pythia: So what would a life of well-being look like to you?

Singer: We can all think of examples of people who we admire, not because of the money they have, but because of the qualities they embody: Generosity, not just with money, but of spirit or concern for others; the capacity to enjoy life; or for their creativity or knowledge. I also think of older people who’ve lived well and who’ve learned from their experiences, losses and failures, as well as accomplishments.

Pythia: This makes me think of my mother, who likes to say that while she's not rich, she's had a rich life. The example of Zorba the Greek also comes to mind.

Singer: I wrote my college thesis on Zorba the Greek! What I discovered through this character was the sense of exuberance and discovery that can come through a life fully lived. And that’s well-being: It doesn’t preclude money, but it’s a spirit of life that’s not solely identified with money.

Pythia: And then there’s the character from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s American classic, The Great Gatsby, now currently a movie.

Singer: Gatsby is a complex character, as he’s all about the striving of the individual to the highest levels of wealth and achievement -- while at the same time he knows it’s an empty game. His ironic, knowing character is the perfect “carrier” of America’s infatuation with money, allowing us to see it.

Pythia: So does Gatsby exemplify a kind of necessary skepticism towards America’s infatuation with money?

Singer: A little skepticism or irony is a step towards consciousness. A cultural complex is everywhere; it surrounds you and you swim in it. And so to both be of it and not fully of it is difficult to achieve.

Pythia: Is becoming conscious of America’s money complex one of our “psychological tasks” as a citizen?

Singer: For me awareness of our cultural complexes is part of being a good citizen. Because they don’t just disappear, it’s a psychological task to both identify the complexes that are driving the collective psyche, and then to address them in a thoughtful way, rather than being blindly possessed by them.

Pythia: A person could even do a case history around money.

Singer: When we address money psychologically it’s a double task, because it’s got both a personal and a cultural layer. So it’s a matter of citizens examining the value of money in their upbringing – whether they were born with too much money or not enough. But ultimately, it’s important to become aware of what the culture is inundating us with, and then to differentiate our own individual relationship to money. That’s no easy task.

This two-part interview, including  "Is America's Money Complex Bankrupting Its Ideals?" is part of a series wtih Dr. Singer over the coming months on America's seven cultural complexes.

Portions of this interview originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

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About the Author

Pythia Peay is a journalist, who writes about psychology, spirituality and the American psyche. She is the author of American Icarus: A Memoir of Father and Country.

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