The psyche and God of an achievement society

A few more thoughts, prompted by Byung-Chul Han’s thesis that we live in an age of hyperachievement, positivity and therefore depression and anxiety, as he outlines in The Burnout Society. This is from a review in the new Third Way.

A fascinating theme in the book is how such social and cultural factors shape our psyches and spiritual lives. Han argues that Freud’s assumptions about the unconscious are now out of date. The father of psychoanalysis lived in what the French philosopher, Michel Foucault, was subsequently to label the “disciplinary society”. In such a culture, individuals self-correct in the attempt to remain on the right side of moral assumptions – to be normal not abnormal, sane not insane, law-abiding not rule-breaking. We routinely monitor ourselves, as if we were living under constant surveillance. The psychoanalytic product is the superego, that inner voice or regulator which escalates the anxiety as rules and regulations are approached or breached. But now, as an achievement society, the imperative to inhibit yourself has given way to an imperative to produce yourself. “Shouldn’t” has been replaced by “can”.

If the punishing superego of the disciplinary society has become less powerful, Han is not clear on the nature of the psychic structures of the achievement society. A first thought might be that ours is an addictive psyche shaped by the pleasure principle – and simultaneously overwhelmed by the narcissistic wounds that inevitable follow from being unable always to do, to thrive, to achieve, to flourish.

Another thought is that Freud’s erstwhile disciple, Carl Jung, has something constructive to offer here. He argued that individuals today need not to perfect themselves but to complete themselves. His vision of the psyche is shaped by a longing to integrate from within it’s own resources, and conversely, of avoiding the mistakes and disasters that come from trying to replicate an ideal. “Before we strive after perfection, we ought to be able to live the ordinary man without self-mutilation,” Jung wrote in a letter. “If anybody should find himself after his humble completion still left with a sufficient amount of energy, then he may begin his career as a saint.”

Such cultural changes also have implications for how we conceive of God. In a disciplinary society, God tends to be viewed as an omnipotent moral being who punishes and condemns, or is pleased and blesses, when his disciples fulfill their duties and tasks. If those imperatives are carried out at cost to the individual, God smiles all the more broadly.

But now, in an achievement society, the dominant image of God will have shifted. The God-image is perhaps now an omnipresent loving being who bestows rewards and riches, happiness and ecstasy. Again, this is too much for mere mortals, and so contemporary theists suffer from guilt not because of what they are not doing but because of what they are not experiencing: the life of the joyful redeemed. This insight might help explain the spread of charismatic movements that tend to emphasize what God has achieved for humanity, and whose meetings are organized around replicating and sustaining the highs – making burnout, once more, almost inevitable.

An alternative view of God, Han argues, is the God of the Sabbath – the holy day on which we are invited not to achieve, not to produce, but to stop. It’s a day not to. It’s an interval in which uselessness and idleness is celebrated. We can be tired on the Sabbath, a tiredness that Han concludes is a blessing because yielding to it precipitates peace and calm.

Moreover, in a surprising discussion of Pentecost, Han argues that it was the disciples’ exhaustion after the events of Good Friday and Easter that prepared them for the open-heartedness required to receive the Spirit. Tired, their defenses and barriers collapsed. Exhausted, they had no energy left. Breathless, they could be inspired – breathed into. Pentecost as shattered. It offers a radical vision for a church which, today, often seems identified with the secular demand to achieve, to unthinkingly intone, “yes we can”.


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