Christians believe they sin by having a sexual thought about the girl in short-shorts walking down the street. Jews believe that’s nonsense. Christians believe that Jesus, a Jew, was the son of God, born of a virgin, who purposefully got himself crucified in order to redeem mankind for the sins of Adam and Eve. Jews don’t think so and are still waiting for their Messiah. When it comes to The Bible, Christians put their emphasis on the New Testament, relegating the Old Testament to being old news. Jews consider the New Testament to be an interesting read, at best. There are numerous other differences between the two religions.
During my analysis my Christian/ Catholic religious beliefs were rarely mentioned, and if they did emerge Veryl shrugged her shoulders, implying they essentially had no analytic value. “Psychoanalysis does not concern itself with religious beliefs,” she once said “They are out of its realm.” Indeed the issues we worked on in my personality that were self-diminishing and psychic-energy draining seemed to have nothing to do with my religion. A Methodist, an atheist or a Hindu could have the same negative unconscious impulses that I had: needing to be the center of attention; needing dozens of friends; needing to be correct on all topics; needing to be in control of those around me; needing to be liked; needing to be needed; needing to be the best in those areas in which I chose to compete. I could go on, but you get the picture. I was needy, and that had nothing to do with my religion.
While religion was not a factor in my personal analysis, I would soon begin practicing “The Jewish Science,” and I was somewhat concerned about it. I had been raised in the strictest of Catholic families in the strictest of Catholic environments. My roots are embedded in an Irish neighborhood on the south side of Chicago from the 1940s and 50s. No place on earth has ever been, or ever will be, more Catholic, and my family took it even farther. There were holy water fonts at the entrances to the rooms in our home. My older brother, a seminarian, drew life-size pictures of the Crucifixion, the Agony in the Garden and the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Into Heaven on the walls of our bedroom. My father wouldn’t miss Sunday mass, or daily mass during Lent, no matter what. My sister taught, voluntarily, in one of the worst inner-city public schools. She was a saint. And my mother, a daily mass and communicant, became the president of the Chicago Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. I was raised pure Catholic.
When I was invited to go into training, I took my concern about religion to my mentor, Jean, a non-practicing Jew. Like Veryl, he also shrugged it off, but was a bit more talkative on the topic.
He explained that psychoanalysis and the Christian religion are not, at their essence, opposed to one another and they actually can be quite complementary. Both have the desire to bring peace to the mind and soul, and both are acutely aware of the healing powers of truth and forgiveness. He said that there are probably more Christians than Jews practicing psychoanalysis today so it’s no longer “The Jewish Science.” When dealing with my patients’ religious issues his advice was to realize the religious material was probably being used as a defense against some other, deeper, emotional problem. “Just listen for clues to unconscious forces and don’t, of course, impose your religious beliefs on your patients. That would be a sin.” He chuckled.
He mentioned “forgiveness” which is, or is supposed to be, a hallmark of the Christian Faith. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” were some of the final words Jesus spoke. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” is in the prayer he taught us. All Christians know the importance of forgiveness, but many would be surprised to realize that forgiveness is also a hallmark of psychoanalysis. Without it the job is not complete.
When “Joe” begins psychotherapy his analyst will be acutely interested in his “history.” He’ll ask him to start at the beginning of his life and walk him, step by step, through it up to the present. He’ll want to hear Joe’s earliest memories, his relationship with his parents, and their relationship with each other. Siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents, teachers, clergy, coaches, and people in Joe’s childhood neighborhood will be of keen interest to his analyst; and in the telling of his story Joe can begin to determine who was good to him (and for him) and who was not, and in what instances. Some people who should have been really good to Joe when he was young may not have been, and if Joe was unaware of this before therapy he will certainly learn it as his therapy progresses. This process makes patients angry at those people — bringing that anger to the surface, from the unconscious to the conscious mind. They’ll get pissed (sometimes really pissed) at those who did them wrong, and it won’t matter if those people are presently alive or dead. This is a goal of psychotherapy: patients finally being able to express in words the feelings they buried years ago.
Let’s say a patient’s father was one of the culprits in her less-than-perfect childhood. He was a weekend drinker and on more than one occasion had been heavy-handed with her and verbally abusive. But long ago she forgot about his abusiveness and today he’s a kind gentle, old codger. If memories of his meanness emerge, she quickly dismisses them, saying something like, “Forgive and forget.” But her unconscious mind has never forgotten her shame and mortification when dad was slapping her around and telling her how worthless she was. When she and her therapist take the lid off these powerful memories and feelings she will, hopefully, again feel enraged at the way her drunken father treated her years ago.
And it is good for her emotional growth to stay angry at him for weeks, months, maybe even years depending on the depth of the pain. But someday (there is no hurry here) she must resolve her feelings and accept them as a reality of her life. She’ll do this by verbalizing them, re-feeling them and putting them into an adult perspective in her conscious mind. Then she can really forgive her father for being what he was — a flawed human being who was made that way by those flawed human beings who raised him (her grandparents), who were made that way by those flawed human beings who raised them (her great-grandparents) going all the way back to the aforementioned Adam and Eve.
I had a psychoanalyst colleague who had a terrible childhood history. Knowing the highlights of his past, I found it amazing that the man became a productive adult. Physical abuse, sexual abuse, and verbal abuse took place regularly in his early years, not ending until he joined the military at age 15. His parents helped him lie about his age, which was probably the only nice thing they ever did for him. Years later, shortly after his father died, my colleague used his influence to put his mother in a nursing home hundreds of miles away from where he lived. He told me that he hated his mother and for 20 years he had no contact with her. When he died he did not even know if his mother was still living. People who knew his mother indicated that she was apparently the worst of the worst, a woman who was cloying, sexually obsessed, bitter, and a pathological liar. My colleague could not get past his rage at his mother. He died, by the way, estranged from his own children.
I know what you’re thinking. How could this psychoanalyst, who had to go through psychoanalysis himself, not get to closure with his feelings toward his mother and forgive her, if not in his heart, at least in his mind? You have a good point. My colleague believed to the end that his situation as a kid was so horrible that he was unique and did not have to eventually forgive his mother. He was wrong, of course, and his personal analysis was incomplete. He was also a flawed analyst. We therapists cannot take our patients to places we haven’t been. Because he never got to his forgiveness stage his patients didn’t either, and their analysis was also incomplete.
What does this have to do with being a Catholic and a practicing psychoanalyst? When I began practicing, I would be faced with a fundamental conflict between my Church’s teachings and what I learned as a trainee. For instance, the Church considered divorce, birth control, sex outside of marriage, adultery, masturbation, and abortion serious sins, but they were simply opportunities for analytic material in my profession. It took me awhile to get it into my thick skull that I was not a priest, a judge, or a parent. I was a psychoanalyst and this is the kind of stuff we worked with: “You’re cheating on your wife? How come? Don’t you love her? You’re jacking off four times a day? What’s making you so anxious? You’ve had five abortions? Why do you keep getting pregnant; have you got something against babies?” Good analytic material will show itself as the patients’ unconscious minds emerge, and their moral judgments would remain their responsibility, not mine.
The forgiveness part took me longer to grapple with, however. We Catholics believe that Jesus was nailed to a cross and hung from it in pain beyond imagination, at the same time asking his father to forgive his torturers because they “Know not what they do.” Meanwhile, back on the couch, I would encourage my patients to re-experience and express aloud their anger at their drunken father because he whacked them around and belittled them while they were growing up. In other words, I would encourage my patients to be un-Christ-like.
But my patients and I would eventually get to the forgiving part, and they’d be healed. Although it took Jesus only seconds to forgive, it might take patients months and years to do so. I could live with that.
It also became clear to me that the Church that preached instant forgiveness was woefully unaware of the depths and intricacies of the unconscious mind. To encourage people to blithely forgive those who were supposed to be loving and nurturing to them but were, in fact, treating them horribly, sets people up for mental illness, because they are harboring emotional lies.
Forgiveness is a great healer — coupled with truth it’s the ultimate healer — but only if it is done with insight, a solid understanding of ourselves and our tormentors, and over a long period of time. Forgiveness can be a crippler to the emotional system if it takes place rapidly and, “Because you’re supposed to, it’s the Christian thing to do.” In this instance it isn’t done, anyway. The “forgiver” is simply using words and religious beliefs that are devoid of feeling. These words and beliefs tighten the lid on anger and bury it in the unconscious making an emotional time bomb.
Shrinks have been accused of attempting to replace religion with psychotherapy, and some have, especially beginners who are particularly zealous. As enthusiastic as I was, and remain, about the miracle of psychotherapeutic treatment, I never believed it was a replacement for religion. They are separate entities: one based on life experiences, the other on faith. Although at first glance they seem to be at odds.
The Cardinal virtues are faith, hope and charity. Charity is known as the greatest, it being a synonym for “love.” Religion can benefit from what we therapists have learned about love — on an intimate level — the level that is so very difficult for many people. Religions are good at instructing people to love “everybody” including their neighbors and God, but this is love from afar, which is easy. So, too, is writing a check to help the downtrodden, writing a spiritually uplifting piece or preaching a sermon. But loving with continuum within the family, especially between the spouses, can be extremely difficult because of the psychological reality of “Transference.” (You’ll read about transference in Chapter 10.” Transference is ever-present in all human relationships, especially marriages, and it can kill them. We shrinks are experts on it. (Between married people love means always being prepared to say, “I’m sorry.”)
So religions can learn from us about intimate love. On the other hand, as analysts, we don’t spend any time with the virtues of faith and hope, and who in their right mind wouldn’t want some of that? Many people would benefit if religion and psychotherapy held hands as good friends.
When I became certified to practice on my own, I did not shrug off my patients’ religious beliefs. I found them to be psychoanalytically interesting and often revealing. As an analyst I was keenly interested in my patients’ family dynamics and sometimes God and religion were part of those dynamics. (They certainly were in my house,) And I had noted that family implied expressions were frequently used in a religious context: God the father; holy mother the church; the blessed virgin mother; the son of God; brothers and sisters in Christ.
Most kids who learn about God (and religion) are taught about these concepts by their parents or older siblings before the age of 7. By that time the unconscious minds are mostly formed. When I asked my patients to describe God I heard a wide range of attributes from loving to vengeful; from forgiving to tyrannical. The patients’ concept of God, then, could give me greater insight into the people who taught them — the ones who contributed the most to the making of their emotional make-up.
As psychoanalysts we do not ponder the question of God’s existence. We leave that to the theologians and philosophers. We struggle with tangible questions like: why are we so mean to each other, especially to family members who are closest to us?
When there is a murder the first place the police look is within the deceased’s family. They know from experience that family members kill each other more often than strangers kill strangers. Hell, the first murder recorded was a sibling rivalry between Cain and his brother Abel. Cain had convinced himself that God loved Abel more so he killed him. Good grief.
I have a buddy, Tom, who doesn’t go to church unless it’s a wedding or a funeral. Tom and I walk our dogs together, and recently I asked him (as I was writing this chapter) if he believed in God. Tom and I normally keep our conversations light, sports and politics, so this was unusual. He stopped walking, looked at me and said, “Yes.” He paused for a few seconds and added, “You gotta believe in something.”
I was surprised by his straightforward answer with no qualifying words and no waffling. I then asked him to describe God and he said, “I can’t describe him. All I know is he’s the reason most people want to be good.” (I wish I’d said that.)
Most people have a need for God to exist no matter their circumstances. Karen Armstrong, in her wonderful book, The History of God, tells the story (I paraphrase) of Jews interred in a Nazi concentration camp. They decided to put God on trial for what he’d allowed to happen to them. The trial was held and they found God guilty as charged. But before they could pronounce sentence, a bell rang. It was time for prayer.
I became comfortable with my given religion and my chosen profession. I witnessed much goodness emerge as my patients and I connected. By unleashing anger and discovering their individual truth, I helped their depressions lift and enabled creative juices to flow. Senses of humor showed themselves and bitterness abated as the abilities to love, and be loved, emerged. Good stuff that would make Jesus smile.
Over the next several months, The Smoky Mountain News will publish Waynesville author Jim Joyce’s memoir about the years he spent as a psychoanalyst. Each week, we’ll begin a chapter in our Books section, and the chapter will be finished on our Web site. You’ll also be able to find the previous chapters in their entirety on the Web site. The book is now at the publishers and will be available in the coming weeks.