What analysis can do for those in despair

From a talk by the psychoanalyst and former England cricketer, Michael Brearley, given at St Michael's Church, Cornhill, London
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Psychoanalysis offers a tragic vision of life, and recognises those elements in the psyche which religious people refer to as "sin".

Psychoanalysis offers a tragic vision of life, and recognises those elements in the psyche which religious people refer to as "sin".

Christians have often regarded despair as the greatest sin, since it implies a denial of God's love, sin against life and the sources of life. Psychoanalysts are well aware of the possibilities of despair, which comes about, broadly speaking, in two ways. The first is the despair to which people can succumb when pain or privation seems too great to bear. Life is subject to inevitable loss and disappointment, from natural catastrophes and human destructiveness.

As Buddha said, there is no life without loss or suffering - the loss of childhood intensity, the loss of loved ones; death. Such facts lead some people to despair.

But life is also tragic in a sense closer to that portrayed as the hubris and nemesis of Greek tragedy. There are, in us all, tendencies to destroy what we love. There are bad things to which we are subject. As Wilde wrote in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: "Each man kills the one he loves, By each let this be heard; The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword."

As the kiss suggests, we "kill" those we love in ways that are hidden from others. We also hide such things from ourselves. We annihilate aspects of our own selves, of our own reality, so as to destroy awareness of painful emotions - loss, jealousy, cruelty and so on; and thus we impoverish ourselves. Psychoanalysts try to understand, and help patients to understand, such tendencies.

Once understood and owned, these routes to neurotic unhappiness and to impoverishment (hell) can, by some, be gradually given up, and other fuller, less selfish, more loving sources of enrichment be, over time, achieved.

To expand: the horrors of our times make faith hard. We are rightly sceptical about the idea of (earthly) paradise. Despair may, especially in these agnostic and atheistic times, lead some to feelings of meaninglessness.

Samuel Beckett wrote: "The original sin is to have been born."

What are we to say about despair of such a kind? The underlying idea that I am questioning is that if all good things come to an end, then their value and meaning are annihilated. In the face of severe suffering and cruelty, most of us lose or would lose our hope.

But the courageous person does not. He holds on to his feeling that truly good things exist; and he maintains his values. So, when there is lasting despair, something is denied or thrown out, however understandably.

Bleakness is a part of life, but to suggest that it is all there is shows contempt for good things, such as love. Ordinarily sensitive, emotional people, while knowing that love can be illusory and is always imperfect, do not conclude that it is necessarily illusory.

Some psychoanalysts speak of a death instinct, a term used to sum up these kinds of tendencies toward negativity and the destruction of what is good, and the subsequent despair.

Psychoanalysts believe that one arena in which such qualities become part of our characters is an early one, in relation to our parents, and it includes what is alluded to by the term "Oedipus complex". For example, we all wish to have one or other parent to ourselves. We feel hatred at our inevitable exclusion, at times, from the Oedipal couple, and may deal with that by means of the fantasy of occupying the place of the unwanted parent and evacuating our feelings of dependence and smallness.

In such ways, we become distant from our real selves, from our needs in relation to parents and people who could help us, and thus from our sources of life - as Ezekiel may have intimated when he referred to the scattered Israelites, or to the white bones in the valley.

Psychoanalysis does not cultivate self-absorption, but awareness of ourselves and others. It does not ignore the fallen state of man nor the difficulty of defeating sin.