SOMETIMES, REPRESSION IS NECESSARY FOR PEACE OF MIND -
Across the oaken table from me in the Refectory was a priest in his mid-eighties who has had a distinguished and memorable career in leadership, scholarship and fidelity. But he profoundly disturbed me when he “opined” that we were witnessing the death throes of the Religious Community to which we both belong. He pointed out that we will have no ordinations this year nor the next nor the next. We have ONE novice and four students spread over a four year theology course. With such a poor backup in the manpower pool, and with a graying, arthritic priest population, the prospects of staffing the Community in the future look bleak.
Yet, the relatively young and recently elected President of this particular Community writes that hopefully we are on the brink of one of the most glorious eras in our history. This strikes a somewhat dissonant chord in my own aging brain. Are we dying or are we about to blast off the launching pad into unforeseen glory? The old timer bases his dreary prediction on numbers and observable facts while the comparative youngster enthuses and hopes from a speculation perspective.
What is one to make of this? Is it just an old man spewing sour grapes and a young man just bouncing off his fantasies and wishful thinking? Is it again the old man dreaming revisionist dreams and the young man seeing visions of what he hopes will be so? I don’t know but suppose that the old man is right and the young man knows, unconsciously, the truth: demise is near and inevitable. What does the young man do? How does he as leader inspire enthusiasm in his troops? How does he fire up morale? Indeed, how does he live with himself if he senses that he is presiding over an increasingly moribund situation? And this in spite of the raucous cheerleading on the sidelines?
Does he take semi-refuge in the theological speculation that God might raise up groups for a specific time and role in a specific era to meet a specific task and let them lapse into extinction when their need is no longer present or pressing? Or does he hustle around trying to find some palatable, Couesque, self hypnotizing mantra that we are getting better every day in every way (as the ship sinks)? How would he or any other human being survive in the face of the painful and traumatic?
On Feb. 23, 2003, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on Repression airing the new and provocative hypothesis that, contrary to the Sacred Cows of the Psychotherapeutic Community, it is sometimes far better to avoid, deny or repress painful, traumatic or threatening material. Those of us who were trained within the last 40 years had it drummed into us that it was essential for the emotional and mental health of our patients that they face, embrace, and dissect traumas, fears and perplexities with full scale enthusiasm. They were to throw their emotional guts right out front, pick them up and regurgitate again and again. Only then would they be free people --- so went all the hoop-la- and badda bing, badda boom, badda bing.
Yet with all the academic and clinical pressures from colleagues and mentors, something just didn’t wash. We all saw some of our patients come back unchanged again and again in spite of all the embracing of pain and sorrow and anger. In fact, consonant with the Times article, it seemed almost as if the focusing - - even riveting - - - fueled the problems. It kept the problem front and center which demanded more time, more concentration, more energy funneled away from enjoyment of one’s life.
A 43 year old student of mine who was supposed to be centering on learning the art and science of counseling was intently hooked on the recollection of her being sexually molested, thirty years prior. She insisted on “ talking this out” in personal therapy, lectures and supervision hours. She was personally unattractive, unmarried and uninteresting. Her ONE claim to possess the spotlight was the telling and re-telling of her unhappy childhood experience. Her life centered on having others listen to her sad story as she eked out of anyone she met any possible shred of sympathy for “ poor me.” Meanwhile, life was speeding by her. She angrily resisted any suggestion that she might MOVE on in her life. But she seemed almost to enjoy her misery. Is this healthy?
In the movie, ANALYZE THIS, which was about a Mafia boss in therapy, the psychiatrist is presented as having two verbalizations with a self pitying client. One, the public one, was the standard Sacred Cow response of empathy and understanding. Two, interiorly and truthfully, he said: “ Why the_____________, don’t you get yourself a life?”
We are seeing in many patients, a PROLONGATION of pain and trauma, when we allow the endless and narcissistic wallowing in the traditional “ pity pot.” We are called to be healers yet it does look, in some instances, that we are enablers. It would be far healthier--- at least in some patients---- to put the lid on the pain, do a spot of repression, denial and avoidance, and GET ON WITH IT! There are so many wonderful, awesome and fulfilling things in life which are available but which need attention and energy. To substitute the almost maternal offerings of our offices for the really satisfying possibilities of the real world is tantamount to alchemy! God forgive the therapist who stokes the patient’s fire of self pity and fear for financial rewards! Although hopefully infrequent, it has been known to happen.
Allowing a patient to give disproportionate attention to a past trauma - - - with full awareness of the research on PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) -- - - can actually harm a person’s healthy development since it places TOO much of a patient’s personal failures on someone or something else. A therapist can never forget the lesson of Shakespeare: ‘ THE FAULT, MY DEAR BRUTUS, IS NOT IN THE STARS, BUT IN OURSELVES.” It can get too comfortable in the chair or the couch when one can blame one’s failure in life or unhappiness on something other than self.
Incidentally, on 9/11, we had one therapist for every three persons. It has been noted that there was NO appreciable help from these offerings. Support came from the GROUP feeling and the camaraderie of all of us involved in Ground Zero. I have pushed some of my own patients to get on with their lives and DO something rather than sit in my office and have me hold their hand even figuratively! Even Sig Freud noted that catharsis alone was probably useless at best and harmful at worst.
Still, the hypothesis remains. FOR SOME PEOPLE, repression and denial may be essential for their peace of mind.
For example, some uninformed and insensitive hospital chaplains have insisted on brutally telling ALL terminal patients that they are dying. This is poor practice and fails to note that SOME terminal patients NEED to deny their own deaths. This negative procedure is more for the chaplain’s need to feel that he is doing his job. The role of the helping person is to help - - - not to hurt !! Surprisingly, denial and repression are sometimes a real way to help the hurting one. Let the chaplain find some other mode of resolving his own hang-ups. It might be helpful to recall that (at least theoretically) the chaplain, the therapist, the priest are there for the good of the “ other”. The patient is not supposed to minister to us but we to them.
So, if the young President of a dying religious Community finds it too painful to face the brutal truth, who can blame him for his avoidance? By the use of repression he can continue with enthusiasm and energy, to find some kind of meaning in what is truly still available. We all can do it, with God’s help, and some of us can bite our tongues as we thank the New York Times for at least occasionally publishing something of value.
p.s. this was written over ten years ago (2016). Some of the observations are in sync with certain levels of the fixed and immutable in human nature and derive from the essence of natural law, but some observations reflect the unpredictable possibilities for change so inherenrt in human nature and behavior. Plus ca change, plus le meme chose!