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One of the criticisms of Barack Obama has been that his presidency consists of “just words.” Ted Sorenson, whose death we have mourned, expressed astonishment at the sentiment. “‘Just words’ is how a president manages to operate. “‘Just words’ is how he engages the country,” Sorensen said in a moment of peevedness.
“Just words” is also what it is that we humans do best, and what represents us at the pinnacle of what it means to be human. Words are not just what creates coherence (or divisiveness) in a country, but words create the foundation of us all — the self. Words are what give us definition. And usually, the first words we hear as newborns are the words of our mother. It is primarily through language that the journey into a mature and separate self takes place. When we are fused, when there is only symbiotic oneness, only one “us” and no separation in this “us-ness,” there is no need for words. At first the language is all coos and goos, the language of pre-words. Then the sounds become words, and the words become attached to meaning. The mother gives voice to her own thoughts and feelings in order to enable the child to understand and give complex expression of his own thoughts and feelings.
The relationship between mother and child is an ever-evolving dialogue. It is the basic dialogue of human love, beginning with the unconditional love of their state of oneness and then maturing into separation. Language is the sine qua non of emotional maturation. Language is what enables the self to have a solid foundation. Language is what allows us to digest feelings throughout the psyche. Language integrates body, mind and soul. Language can bring us together, but it is also what separates us. Language defines an “I” and a “you.” Language is what gives us the rich medley of expression of our various feeling and thought processes. Language both grounds us in our bodies, holding us back by its very limitations, and frees us as our words take flight, escaping from us in their airborne journey to the ears of another.
Language is powerful because it helps us to more effectively get what we want. “No Mommy, not the chocolate cookie, the vanilla one.” It enables us to communicate what we feel and think — “Mommy, I hate you” or, “Mommy, I love you.”
Language also allows us to deceive. Once you have language, you can think and feel one thing and say another. Language is what gets con-men millions of unfairly extracted dollars. It’s what gets married men to seduce unsuspecting women into being their mistresses for years based on false, promised hope. It’s what gets adolescent boys to convince their all-too-willing-to-believe mothers that they’re not doing drugs. Language may represent the best of us, the thing that separates us from the animals, but it is also the thing that allows us to be utterly false.
When Freud was developing his comprehensive theory of psychic/mental functionality (and dysfunctionality), he emphasized words. Words became both the treatment and the cure for psychic disorders.
In developing his theory and technique of psychoanalysis, Freud often referred back to the Greeks. The Greeks saw the close relationship of the gods of love (Eros), sleep (Hypnos) and death (Thanatos). It was because of the Greeks’ belief in the soul that these gods were so paramount in their mythology. These three gods shared the quality of limb-relaxation. The soul remains encased in the body, and it is only when we are supine, when the muscles of our body are relaxed enough, that the soul is set free. In telling his patients to lie on the couch, Freud evoked the limb-relaxing quality of Hypnos. The state of the analytic patient is like sleep. The patient is in a relaxed position, lying on the couch, arms at the sides and legs uncrossed. But in spite of this bodily relaxation, the mind remains awake and alert.
Freud discovered that when his patients were in this limb-relaxed state, they would say un-ordinary things, things that had formerly been un-sayable. The edict the analyst gives to the patient after he has taken the couch is to talk (in silent hope that the patient will come to feel free enough in the session to say the un-sayable). Talking — placing all thoughts and feelings into words — was Freud’s method of cure for the disease of our being perched precariously between life and death, the never-ending conflict between our contradictory drives. Through the act of talking, the destructive aspects of the power of Thanatos are tamed, the constructive energy behind aspects of Eros is liberated and the two drives can co-exist without undue pain or disharmony.
The analyst instructs the patient to take the couch and say what comes to his mind, to talk about whatever he wants the analyst to know about him, to tell his life story, beginning wherever he wants and ending wherever he wants. The patient is both biographer and protagonist of the story he chooses to tell. In giving the instruction to talk, the analyst is challenging the patient to remain free and childlike in thought and feeling, yet mature in his ability to utilize language as his vehicle of self-exploration.
The emphasis on pure talking with no other addendums — no eye contact, no bodily gestures — is what uniquely defines psychoanalysis, separates it from all other therapeutic methods. All methods of psychotherapy aid the patient in coming to know his thoughts and feelings, but psychoanalysis uniquely makes the articulation of thoughts and feelings the very definition of cure. And, ironically, the supreme emphasis on words means that they come to have very little meaning. I think of the language of analysis as “throw-away words.” Once the words have been said, the mission has succeeded. Once the thought or feeling has been spoken, it is released and can then disappear into the stratosphere. Those words that seem particularly precious can be re-captured at any time. The others can remain as throwaways.
The process between patient and analyst is, if nothing else, a conversation. Patient and analyst engage in the exchange of words. This is essentially all they do: talk. It doesn’t matter whether you want to call this method of talk science (as some psychoanalysts claim), art (as most psychoanalysts claim) or hogwash (as critics of psychoanalysis claim). The one thing that is indisputable is that the patient comes to tell a story about himself. In fact, the patient has decided to be in this process of self-examination largely because the story that he has been telling himself has either stopped or become too painful. The analyst listens to the story and talks back, and they continue doing this specific kind of dialoguing as long as the conversation is either useful, interesting, pleasurable or even painful but ultimately gratifying in some way. The dialogue continues in a successful analysis until the story begins to move again. One might even develop a clear beginning and end of the story line, a cogent story that comes to have rational meaning. For a while it doesn’t even matter whether the story has the authenticity of truth. The analyst suspends disbelief (as Freud originally did when his patients told him that they were being sexually abused by fathers, uncles, friends of the family) in order to enter the emotional reality of the patient. It is only later that the analyst must take on the difficult job of aiding the patient to move toward reality, into an accurate rendering of his life story. The maturing adult, then, is a storyteller who is continually in the process of reliving and revising his memories, continually re-finding his identity, continually re-forging the shape of his very self-hood.