Saturday, February 20, 2010

darkest valley

Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.

-- Sigmund Freud, “Dissection of the Personality”

Freud’s aphorism is best left in German, where it is so brief, and means so many things. “Werden” is both an auxiliary and a verb in itself. To say “Ich wird gehen” is to say that I will go; but to say “Ich wird Mensch” is to say I am becoming a human being. So what do we mean if we say that something “soll werden”? That it “should become,” or rather, it should come into being. But what exactly should come into being? “I” should.

Freud capitalized the common pronouns es and ich, making them into proper names for parts of a personality, technical terms of psychoanalysis. In English we separate indifferent pronouns (I, it) from the psychiatric terms (Id, Ego) by medical Latin. But Freud’s theory in common language is poetry, unparaphrasable. “Where id was, there shall ego be.” But also “Where It used to be, I should come to be.” And “The ego shall dislodge the id.” And “There where it was, it is my duty to come to be.” What had seemed to be something else, I must see face to face, no longer darkly.

Or as Socrates said in his Apology, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

The id must have what it wants right now, knowing no time or contradiction. The ego wants to choose a good outcome, aligning with reality and consequence. Id is the power and ego the wisdom. Id is the horse and ego the rider. Id is the impulse and ego the strategist.

This is no zero-sum game. I do not win by extinguishing the Other. If I kill the horse I die. If I contain the horse in a secret corral, it will leap the fence and trample my chessboard, leaving me to wonder what it was and whence it came. If I am to become whole, I must come into right relationship with it. I must accept and authorize its power.

I want to talk about the afterlife, she said. How many can get into heaven?

I’m not Catholic, I said; so perhaps you know your church’s teaching better than I do. 

There’s heaven and hell – and then there’s purgatory, so they tell me, where lots of people spend lots of time getting cleansed of their sins. Have I got it right?

That’s what the priests say. But what do you think?

You don’t trust your priests?

They’re not here. You are. What do you think?

I’m torn, I said. I have to think that God wants all of us with her, and my religion says she didn’t make us all in order to damn most of us.

But what?

I didn’t say “but.”

You might as well have.

All right then. But I also have to think there is judgment.

What does that mean?

If I arrive at the Great Banquet, should I pass the potatoes to Slobodan Milosevic?

She was full of questions. How long might it take to purge one’s sins? Were there sins that could not be purged? Can one do the work in advance? Is purgatory a place of suffering? Or of tedium? Might it be a sort of classroom, where one writes “I will not . . .” a billion times on the blackboard?

Good questions. This was all very intellectual. I was in over my head, and outside my expertise. She was agitated. We weren’t getting anywhere.

Marjorie, I said, are you feeling fear?

She stared at me. The knot in her forehead unraveled.

Are you afraid of dying?

She grinned more widely than I thought possible.

Yes, she said. That’s what I’m feeling. Fear. I’m afraid.

We sat for several moments in glory.

Thank you, said she.

You’re welcome, said I.

Pastoral counseling isn’t always this easy. She had done most of the work, painted herself into a corner from which only the power of a name could extricate her. She had to make the unconscious conscious.

Not for nothing did Yahweh bring the creatures of the garden before the universal father, so that he could name them. When he had thought of their names, Adam had dominion; he was now responsible for the garden and its inhabitants. They (except perhaps the serpent) had no corresponding name for him. They did not have dominion. They were not responsible for him. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. We’re supposed to take care of the least of these (and not they of us), but we cannot tend and keep even our interior garden without naming its members.

Marjorie was still afraid, but now had named it. She had a handle. She was riding the horse that might have trampled her. When she named the beast, she put the bit in its mouth. It might still get away from her. She might send it in the wrong direction. But now she could watch and keep herself.

I will die later than she: I cannot tell her, have no right to tell her, not to be afraid. To live with her fear until she dies, she must know she is afraid. Though I walk through the darkest valley, your rod and your staff they comfort me. I must hear her fear and help her name it. I must protect her from those who would shame her for it. I must bless her fear. I must travel with her, in the steps of her fear. Where It had been, there was now only Marjorie.

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