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Page Contents: The Metaphor of Change / Knowledge versus Understanding / Not Knowing / The Veil / Loss of Soul / Meaningful Direction

 

The
 
Metaphor
 
of
 
Change

IN HIS masterful play, Man and Superman, George Bernard Shaw turned the classical images of heaven and hell upside down. He described hell as a place of complete satisfaction, where all desires are freely fulfilled. Personal responsibility had no place in hell. It did in heaven, though, a place for the “masters of reality”—and, curiously enough, the place where souls were free to go when they finally got sick of hell. 

This is a provocative metaphor. Being a metaphor, though, it is not to be taken literally in a metaphysical sense.[1] But it is a good metaphor for how we live our life in this world, because this concept of “a hell that you can leave when you get sick of it” aptly describes psychological change as well. Many people cling to their own psychological “hell,” no matter how painful it may be, because the discipline of health is even more fearful. But eventually, if they catch only a glimpse of sorrow for the mess they’re in, they can get sick of it all and decide to cross over to “reality.”

 


 

Knowledge
 
 
 
 

Therefore, though an atheist, not a theologian, Shaw nevertheless made a brilliant discovery: a spiritual life is also a practical life. Yet such practicality does not depend on knowledge so much as understanding.

Too many persons today, however, preoccupy themselves with knowledge, whether it be intellectual or carnal, and in doing so they sidestep the concept of understanding. Why? Because understanding involves “standing under something,” and that something is the “law”—not the local penal code, but the psychological law of lack and limitation that holds the agony of being itself as it stands on the brink of redemption through divine love. All the pages of knowledge flap uselessly in the swirling gusts that blow along that ridge.

 


 

Not
 
Knowing

This lack and limitation affects every child born into this world, because we are all born into a pre-existing social world of language, science, technology, art, literature, and so on that excludes us and mystifies us. But even more profound than the mystery of the sum total of all this factual information is the mystery of the child’s own body. The child finds itself literally at the mercy of biological processes—eating, vomiting, defecation, urination, bleeding, reproduction, and death—that it can neither control nor comprehend. Thus the child will feel excluded and will believe—rightly so—that the world “knows” something that he or she does not know. Right from the beginning, then, the child is located in a profound emotional space of “not knowing” and feeling “left out.”

Moreover, when children are criticized and humiliated by others, they can develop the belief that others are deliberately withholding knowledge from them, and this belief can cause the children to burn with anger at their parents in particular and the world in general. Such children can develop an intense desperation to want to figure out everything in advance, before risking doing anything, so as to avoid further feelings of humiliation.

  

Knowing—that is, anticipating—what might happen next is a characteristic defensive desire of children in dysfunctional families. After all, if they can guess an irrational parent’s next move, they might be able to avoid an ugly family scene.

To such children, then, it’s a loathsome thing to admit, “I don’t know.”

This explains why, if you offer some piece of information to a person who grew up in a dysfunctional family, his or her response will likely not be a simple “Thank you” but will be a quickly retorted “I know!”

  

It’s an awkward, uncomfortable, and frustrating place to be—and so we all devote considerable energy to overcoming the feeling of “not knowing.”

We might seek out intellectual knowledge through formal education.

We might engage in scientific research.

We might join country clubs, gangs, cults, cliques, or any other social organization that purports to offer some secret “knowledge.”

We might search through myriads of pornographic images hoping for the special privilege of seeing what is usually kept hidden.


  

We might seek out “carnal knowledge” through the body of another person and attempt to locate the psychological agony of our bodily mystery in the pleasure—or pain—of the other.

We might create our own fantasy worlds—with thoughts and images of eroticism, heroism, revenge, or destruction—in which we can “figure it out” on our own so as to possess the power and recognition we so desperately crave.

 


 

The
 
Veil

However much we might desire it, all the “knowledge” in the world is nothing but a thin veil that hangs over the dark anguish of helplessly “not knowing.” Standing before the veil, suspecting the secret truth of our “not knowing,” we feel confused, disgusted, weak, useless, and deceived. 

  

The brilliant French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, tells the story of a competition between two ancient painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios.[2] Zeuxis receives acclaim for painting grapes so life-like that even the birds who try to peck at them are fooled. In his pride, Zeuxis then goes to look at the work of Parrhasios. But Zeuxis sees only a veil, and so he asks to see the painting that Parrhasios has hidden behind the veil. Well, Parrhasios’ painting was the veil. It was so well done that it fooled even the master of deceptive painting himself. Hence Lacan points out that if you want to deceive someone, present him with a “veil,” something that incites his pride to want to know what is being hidden from him.

  

With all of our knowledge hanging like a deceptive veil over the agony of being, we stand helplessly under the psychological law of lack and limitation. Trapped in this wretched state, therefore, we have only one hope: to understand the soul.

 


  

Loss
 
Of
 
Soul

Psychologically speaking, to paraphrase Lacan,[3] soul is something—alien to the mundane—that empowers us to bear what is intolerable and lacking in the human world.[4]

In this modern world, though, much of our society has lost its sense of soul. In the collective desire for diversity it’s all too easy to misunderstand life by confusing the truth of tolerance with the fraud of acceptance, the truth of holiness with the fraud of pride, and the truth of love with the fraud of sensuality.

Furthermore, with the loss of soul many of us today have also discarded the concept of sin—which, in psychological language, can be defined as a functional narcissism in all of us which serves the self, rather than others. So, instead of making life’s decisions according to personal responsibility, we make decisions according to personal convenience. Sin, therefore, is what blinds us to the realization that there’s more to life than the veil of the psychological “self” that the world shows us as the coveted image of happiness. As such, sin pulls us away from true love and sucks us down into the hedonistic mire of narcissism—and there, in that foul netherworld, soul is lost. Sin may be convenient, but it’s just not practical.

  

The great theologian Augustine of Hippo, in north Africa, said that “Sin is the punishment of sin.” This makes perfect sense if you understand that the human social world is nothing but a mass of psychological defenses—pride, anger, competition, social status, take your pick—which protect us in our blindness, the blindness that results from an ignorance of soul. All defenses originate in childhood as ways to assist survival, but carried on unconsciously into adulthood those same defenses—the ones that once protected us—lead us into nothing but the repeated punishment of psychological and social dysfunction.

Don’t misunderstand this. We are all basically good. But goodness takes work—lots of work. Hard work. And self-restraint. For without our restraining the pride of self and its defenses, true love, the most exquisite and pure love imaginable, remains invisible. Along the path of least resistance—the path of sin, the easy way, the way to nowhere—love is nowhere to be seen, for it remains banished behind the thorny hedges of psychological defenses.
 
And what is true love, if not to give of yourself to save others—even those who hate you— from their blindness?

  

 


 

Meaningful
 
Direction

We would do well, then, to pay attention to sin today while remembering that crossing the barrier between sin and spirituality is a simple matter of personal choice, with complete freedom to go in either direction. Psychology has too often been preoccupied with the pursuit of happiness,[5] and it has missed the point about helping individuals understand life and find a personally meaningful—and practical—sense of direction.[6] Psychology in itself cannot offer any meaning to life,[7] but it can help individuals disentangle themselves from the snare of illusory social identifications that keep us trapped in blindness and pull us backwards into self-destruction. 

I can offer no “proof” of God, nor can I prove that souls exist or that spirituality is anything more than a figment of our imaginations. But look at it this way: If you value spirituality, what do you have to lose? Mediocrity. What do you have to gain? Everything.

But the proof of love is simple:

Gustato spiritu, desipit omnis caro.[8]

(Once I taste of the spirit, all carnal things become meaningless.)

 


 

The
 
Book
 

Psychology from the Heart
The Spiritual Depth of Clinical Psychology

A collection of texts from the writings of
Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.

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Notes:

1. The real hell is a truly horrifying place because it is, literally, the defilement of true love. St. Teresa of Avila, who had a vision of hell, wrote that she would be willing to suffer the pain of several deaths if it would prevent anyone from going there. See St. Teresa of Avila, “The Book of Her Life.” In The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume Two, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1980), ch. 32, no. 6:
    “From this experience [the vision of hell] also flow the great impulses to help souls and the extraordinary pain that is caused me by the many that are condemned. . . . It seems certain to me that in order to free one alone from such appalling torments I would suffer many deaths very willingly.”
 
2. Jacques Lacan, “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.” Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, translated by Alan Sheridan. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981). See p. 103 and pp. 111-112.
 
3. Jacques Lacan, “A Love Letter.” In Mitchell, J. & Rose, J. (Eds.), Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne. (New York: W. W. Norton [paperback], 1985). See p. 155:
    “And yet I fail to see why the fact of having a soul should be a scandal for thought—were it true. If it were true, the soul could only be spoken as whatever enables a being . . . to bear what is intolerable in its world, which presumes this soul to be alien to that world. . . .”
 
4. Please note that the psychological meaning of “soul” is one thing, whereas the theological meaning (and welfare) of the soul is a matter for religion, which can be a transcendent step above spirituality. That is, some spirituality, in its aspiration for a “oneness” with the universe, often inadvertently becomes a oneness with sin as well. Religion, if its spirituality seeks a moral responsibility to the divine, can transcend moral relativism. Sadly, though, some individuals make their religious practices into mere intellectualism lacking in spirituality.
 
5. Jacques Lacan, “The signification of the phallus.” In Écrits: A selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977). See p. 287:
    “In any case, man cannot aim at being whole (the ‘total personality’ is another of the deviant premises of modern psychotherapy), while ever the play of displacement and condensation to which he is doomed in the exercise of his functions marks his relation as as subject to the signifier.”
 
6. “Wait a minute,” you say, “the motto of this country is In God We Trust. America is a spiritual country.” Well, we can wonder about that. How can the pursuit of “happiness”—with its narcissistic hunger for aggressive political hostility and sniping, angry and hateful protest, violent video games, competitive sports, erotic entertainment, obesity, drugs, gambling, social rudeness, exploitation of the underprivileged, abuse of the environment, and institutional hate crimes against unborn children—be spiritual?
 
7. Lacan, at least, did not attempt to subvert religion like Freud, nor did he try to “psychologize” religion like Jung and Rank. Lacan simply respected the fact that psychoanalysis could say nothing meaningful about religion. See “The subversion of the subject and the dialectic of desire in the Freudian unconscious.” In Écrits: A selection (Alan Sheridan, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton, 1977, p. 316:
    “We [psychoanalysts] are answerable to no ultimate truth; we are neither for nor against any particular religion.”
 
8. I found this quote in The Ascent of Mount Carmel by Saint John of the Cross, Book Two, Chapter 17, no. 5. (The English translation is my own.) Saint John refers to it as “a frequently quoted spiritual axiom.” Saint Bonaventure, in his Commentaria in Quatuor Libros Sententiarum attributes the quote to Pope Saint Gregory the Great (see Opera Omnia S. Bonaventurae, Ad Claras Aquas, 1882, Vol. 1, p. 254), though the quote may actually have its origin in a letter (Epistle 111) by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

 
Additional Resources
 
Lacan:
The Lacanian School of Psychoanalysis  in the San Francisco Bay area, offers training in Lacanian psychoanalysis.
The San Francisco Society for Lacanian Studies  provides lectures and information about Lacanian psychoanalysis.
 
Related pages within A Guide to Psychology and its Practice:
Death—and the Seduction of Despair
Fear
Forgiveness
Identity and Loneliness
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Sexuality and Love
Spiritual Healing
Terrorism and Psychology
 
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INDEX of all subjects on this website
 
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Copyright © 1997-2013 Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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