Pandora’s box, repression, and gun violence

From my perspective, the big news this week was the start of senate hearings on gun violence, which evoked a wide range of passions across the spectrum of public opinion.  More poignant than any testimony in Washington was the death of Hadiya Pendleton, a 15 year old honor student who performed at President Obama’s inauguration on the 21st.  The day before the speechifying began, Hadiya was shot and killed in public park in a “nice” section of Chicago, about a mile from the president’s house.  Police think it was a case of mistaken identity.

I thought of Hadiya Pendleton as I was out walking the dogs in a “nice” local park.  I remembered a lecture one of my psych professors gave 20 years ago.  We were studying defense mechanisms, and of these, repression gets a lot of bad press.  Nobody wants to be repressed or live in a repressive society.

My professor expressed an alternate view in his lecture:  repression kept a lid on many antisocial behaviors.  He quoted James Hillman who said, “What used to be the darkest dreams of Freud’s neurotic patients are now played out on our streets.”

The human psyche has not changed in 100 years, but our world has altered dramatically.  Men no longer need to wear boiled shirts, and women are free to bare their ankles.  We’ve learned to embrace the individual conscience and the search for an “authentic me,” but we don’t know what to do if someone’s “authentic me” turns out to be a sociopath.

We’ve found out the hard way that you  can’t just unrepress the good stuff.  When we let our angels out of the box, the demons get a pass too.  Which brings to mind the story of Pandora.

In order to punish humans for Prometheus’ theft of fire, Zeus sent Pandora to earth with a sealed jar (later mistranslated as “box”) and instructions not to open it.  We all know what happens in folklore with orders like that.

Pandora by John Waterhouse, 1896

By the time Pandora got the lid back on, all the evils of the world had been released.  Only hope remained in the jar.  Pandora’s dilemma is ours.

When it comes to our violent behaviors, inhibition was not such a bad thing.  Now that it’s out of the box, the question becomes, what do we do with our hope?