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Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 07/05/3013

Thought for the Day

In many ways, it’s nothing special. A rather battered nineteenth century Biedermeier couch, covered in cushions and a Persian carpet. It has the deceptively non-threatening feel of bourgeois domesticity. But Sigmund Freud’s famous couch has seen better days. And so, to coincide with his birthday that was yesterday, an appeal has been launched for the couch’s restoration.

As it happens, my own weekly sessions of analysis are in a room that overlooks 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead, where Freud once worked and where the couch still lives. The couch I sit on is actually a sofa, I imagine because Freud’s style of couch is now so freighted with so many complex cultural associations that these could easily get in the way. For the point about the analyst’s couch is that it needs to feel safe. And it needs to feel safe because what most people talk about on them feels decidedly unsafe. This is a place to explore our deepest fears and fantasies, where we are guided to recognise our fundamental sense of what Freud called ‘original helplessness’ and the labyrinthine, and sometimes self-destructive ways, that we try and avoid this knowledge or protect ourselves from it. This helplessness is, for Freud, rooted in the helplessness of childhood, of the child’s lack of control over the sources of his or her own satisfaction. And such is the fear of this helplessness that many of us seek to withdraw our need for others, striking a pose of artful self-sufficiency in which we become mini-gods, immune from the pain that our dependency inevitably generates.

Freud, of course, was fundamentally hostile to religion in all its forms, not least because he saw it as one of the most stubborn illusions through which we avoid the acknowledgment of our helplessness by the postulation of an invisible friend who tells us that we are special and at the centre of the world. But this is not what religion tells me at all. In fact, I find in Christianity, especially in the Augustinian tradition, a remarkably similar observation to that make by Freud himself. For Augustine, we are fundamentally dependent creatures. This is what he really means by original sin. It’s not about bedroom naughtiness but about human brokenness and our inability to fix ourselves. Original sin is the wound that all human beings carry round with them, the wound of not being omnipotent and in control of the sources of our satisfaction, the wound, that is, of our vulnerability to the pain that others can cause us. This is a deeply moral notion because it suggests that all human beings come ontologically stamped with the request: “Fragile: handle with care.”

What I have learnt in therapy is that is helplessness does not necessarily mean hopelessness. Pain can be borne. And moreover, that our emotional scars are a strange sort of connective tissue to the vulnerability of others, a means through which I love and am loved back. Finding strength in weakness, is how St Paul called it.

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3 minutes

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