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UFO's, Close Encounters, and the Cry for Meaning

What is the psychospiritual significance of the UFO phenomenon?

"Man cannot stand a meaningless life." -- C.G. Jung

Strange objects have reportedly been seen flying, floating and, at least in one famous incident five centuries ago in Nuremberg, Germany, apparently fighting in our skies for thousands of years. Stunning eye-witness accounts of what happened one early morning above sixteenth-century Nuremberg on April 14, 1561, describe numerous multi-colored spherical "globes," disc-like "plates," blood-red "crosses," larger "rods" or cylindrical "tubes" containing round objects and one massive triangular or spear-shaped black object doing fierce aerial battle for more than an hour until some flew off "into the sun" while others crashed to earth in a cloud of smoke or "steam." Hallucination? Waking vision? If so, it was shared and attested to by many medieval Nuremberg residents that extraordinary day. (See two different artist's renderings around that time of what was witnessed and documented in the Nuremberg Gazette above and below. Five years later, an almost identical incident allegedly took place in Basel, Switzerland.) While obviously one of the most dramatic and remarkable of such widely reported phenomena, the Nuremberg event is but one of countless sightings of similarly oddly shaped spherical, saucer-like, triangular and cylindrical objects over the past five-hundred years, sometimes by highly credible witnesses such as commercial or military pilots and police officers. What really is it that they are seeing?

In 1958, the year Swiss psychiatrist and depth psychologist C.G. Jung celebrated his 83rd birthday three years before his death, he published a very controversial work about UFO's, at that time popularly referred to as "flying saucers." Later titled Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky (Princeton University Press, 1979), Jung's concern was less whether or not these UFO's objectively, physically or materially exist than with their subjective, phenomenological inner reality, psychological meaning and spiritual significance. (See my prior posts on subjective and objective reality.) Jung's emphasis on our fundamental human need for meaning in the face of a seemingly meaningless universe is something he shared with existential analysts like Otto Rank, Viktor Frankl and Rollo May. Meaning and the problem of meaninglessness is one of the ultimate concerns of existential psychotherapy. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl felt that we all possess an innate, instinctual "will to meaning": an inherent need to make sense of life, to find some purpose. When this innate need is unmet or frustrated, when we find ourselves living in what Frankl called an "existential vacuum," despair, rage, depression and embitterment ensue. (See my prior posts on anger disorder.) Indeed, Dr. Frankl proposed the following somewhat simplistic formula: D = S - M. Despair equals suffering without meaning. Meaning makes suffering more bearable. So naturally, we tend to seek meaning in life as much as possible. We want to make sense of the seemingly senseless. Atrribute meaning to the apparently absurd. Assign significance to the insignificant. Both Jung and Rank, unlike their mutual mentor, Sigmund Freud, believed we need meaningful illusions, myths or religious beliefs to improve or preserve mental health. Rollo May, in his last work, The Cry for Myth (1991), clearly illustrates the vital psychological importance of myths that help give meaning to human existence. Soren Kierkegaard, a philosophical forerunner of existential therapy, felt that life is fundamentally meaningful, and that it is our task to discover that mysterious spiritual meaning. At the same time, like French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, existential therapy recognizes the possibility that life may be basically meaningless except to the extent we bravely imbue it with meaning. That life holds no hidden meaning other than that which we choose to give it. And that without the courageous capacity to tolerate life's partial or complete meaninglessness, we are, as Freud held regarding religious dogma, susceptible to believing almost anything in order to allay our anxiety about the unknown and satisfy our insatiable need for meaning.

Now, more than fifty years following the original publication of Jung's essay about the depth psychology of UFO's, this enigmatic mystery remains both vital and fascinating: If UFO's are objectively real, what does their persisting existence and presence on this planet signify? And if they are not real in any physical sense, mere mirages, misperceptions or misinterpretations, fantastic figments of our fertile and meaning-making imagination, what does this say about us? As Pablo Picasso put it, "Everything you can imagine is real." Could UFO's turn out to be phenomena of our own creation? Deeply embedded archetypal images stored in and stemming from what Jung called our "collective unconscious"? Of course, given the greatly enhanced ability today to capture and document (as well as fake using sophisticated computer programs like Photoshop) such sightings with video and cell phone cameras, and the cumulative collection of photographic and other evidence available, to totally deny their physical existence out of hand seems not merely skeptical, but somewhat naive and defensive. A solipsistic, hyper-psychological, one-sided explanation. On the other hand, their continued elusiveness, evasiveness, rarity and the lack of unequivocal validation requires, much like religion, a significant leap of faith to overcome the absence of irrefutable proof of their reality. Why do some enthusiastically take this leap of faith, while others refuse to do so? Gullibility? Hypersuggestibility? Psychopathology? Desperation for something otherworldly to believe in? And why do we so strongly feel the need to somehow identify and rationally explain these, by definition, unidentified and irrational phenomena? Is it simply human curiosity?

The unknown is a frightening thing. As with primitive man and natural phenomena such as solar or lunar eclipses, fire, floods, thunder, lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes or tornadoes, we tend to fear the unknown and create stories or myths to explain them. This serves the purpose of assuaging our existential anxiety in the face of these terrifying phenomena. Science today has succeeded in explaining such formerly inexplicable phenomena. But UFO's are something modern science cannot yet explain. Their reported characteristics and behavior defy physics, seem more organismic than mechanical, and transcend any anthropomorphic projections we place upon them. Are they, as most believe, brilliantly engineered space ships controlled by humanoid pilots? Or rather some organic form of intelligent life we cannot comprehend? While tales of such visitations have been occurring for millennia if not longer, our collective postmodern fascination took off in the 1950's following the now infamous 1947 Roswell, New Mexico case, and came to a cinematic climax in 1977 with director Steven Spielberg's classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hundreds if not thousands of sightings and photographs of strange objects in the skies over every continent around the world are officially filed annually.

For decades, starting notably during the 1950's and taking off with the alleged 1961 Barney and Betty Hill alien abduction case in Massachusetts, otherwise sober and quite rational individuals have recounted being abducted by such alien crafts and their non-human occupants. What's up? Mass hysteria? Archetypal nightmares? Psychosis? Or waking reality? Fact or fiction? The late Harvard psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John E. Mack took a special interest in this bizarre yet, to him, not necessarily pathological phenomenon, taking and treating seriously sufferers of so-called traumatic alien abduction in his private practice and clinical research.

Whether real physical phenomena or no less subjectively real to those who experience such alien encounters and sightings, we instinctively seek to make meaning of them. Science is one way of imposing rational meaning on unknown phenomena. Religion is another. Mythology is a third. Indeed, it can be said that both science and religion are forms of mythology. Myths express existential truths that defy logical or rational explanations. Myths, however, are by no means necessarily untrue, as common usage has it. Myths contain archetypal truths about human existence and experience. Myth is how we attribute meaning to our existence and experience--no myth, no meaning. Myth is a way of looking at the world, the cosmos, ourselves and our place in and relationship to reality. UFO's, in this sense, are very much part of our collective mythology, both past and present. The UFO phenomenon (like the "possession syndrome" discussed in a previous post) is one of the few profound existential mysteries modern science has yet to explain away, despite its best efforts. As Spielberg so skillfully and insightfully demonstrates in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, witnessing UFO's is associated with a profoundly numinous, spiritual or religious experience. An existential quest for meaning. An unforgettable experience of awe, wonder and even child-like joy. A life-altering and mind-opening confirmation of Shakespeare's hint in Hamlet that "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

At the same time, there is a dark side to this potently numinous experience, a deep fear and dread of the UFO phenomenon, as can be seen in these terrifying tales of abduction by monstrous grey-skinned, insect-eyed aliens conducting torturous testing on their confused, disoriented and helpless victims. And the threat of invasion, colonization and interplanetary war as depicted in H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Independence Day. Alternately, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Cocoon, and ET depict the inhabitants of UFO's to be beneficent, peaceful beings with god-like powers capable of benefitting mankind immensely-- depending upon how we relate to them.

Like good guardian angels, they are sent here to save us from ourselves or to deliver some life-saving cosmic message or warning to divert disaster. But they are typically met with suspicion, hostility and aggression, further endangering and impoverishing the world. Yet an equally dangerous response would be to naively deny the potential evil such powerful foreign phenomena could actually visit upon us, a possibility evidently not lost on our various governments world-wide.

It may be that our combined fascination and dread of what's "out there" waiting to be discovered in our universe is a metaphor or mirror for how we feel about our inner universe: that unknown territory depth psychologists refer to as the "unconscious." Perhaps, as in dreams, we project our own personal or collective devils and demons onto the phenomena known as UFO's, deeming them a direct threat to our sense of self and belief system. Seeing them as something evil that must be resisted, attacked and exterminated at all costs rather than met, understood and assimilated into our rigid Weltanschauung or world-view. Surely for some, the perceived aliens serve defensively as scapegoats from outer space onto which dissociated traumatic life events like childhood abuse can be conveniently and unconsciously projected and experienced as being perpetrated by these demonic, all-powerful foreign devils rather than the offending evil parents or child molestors from the past. The archetypal imagery of invasive flying entities--be they winged demons or aliens in spaceships--is quite commonly found in dreams and the waking delusions of psychosis, serving as symbolic representations of evil forces felt to be influencing the patient against his or her will. Yet, from the standpoint of depth psychology, these disturbing "evil forces," unacceptable feelings or unfamiliar impulses originate not from some external source such as aliens, demons or the devil, but rather from within our disowned unconscious psyche. Seizing upon the idea of alien abduction or remote telepathic manipulation serves as a way of making meaning of massive internal chaos and confusion.

There is no doubt that the perception of UFO's is experientially similar to other miraculous events recorded in religious history, like Moses seeing the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, visitations by angels, ghosts or a god's physical manifestation on Earth. In this sense, we need, even crave such dream-like visionary phenomena: UFO's, whatever they really are or are not, from wherever they come and the purpose, if any, of their presence, remind us that there is still much we don't know about ourselves and our environment. That we may not be completely and utterly alone in this vast universe. That we can not necessarily continue to narcissistically consider ourselves the unique, superior pinnacle of life and center of the cosmos. That there are far greater powers at play in the universe, for better or worse. And that, luckily, we are still capable of experiencing something that lifts us out of our everyday, mundane, ordinary, banal, often seemingly purposeless lives, and reminds us, if only momentarily, what it means to be fully, ecstatically alive in a universe filled with beauty, mystery, terror, danger and wonder. Indeed, it is precisely the profoundly mysterious and mythic nature of UFO's that, like dreams, makes them so psychologically powerful. As with all natural or metaphysical phenomena, once science dissects, analyzes and mechanistically explains such mysteries, their numinous, spiritual, potentially healing power is deadened or lost. Like religion, faith in the reality of UFO's provides something to believe in for many in need of more meaningful lives. Today, in a time of cultural chaos and economic crisis, when many are prone to lose or question their faith, sense of purpose, and capacity to find life meaningful and worth living, we may need UFO's--whatever their origin, nature, enigmatic mission or psychological meaning may be--more than they need us.

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