Thursday, May 12, 2011


Once a year I have my oil company come in and clean my furnace. It’s part of my warranty, and I need to do it whether it needs it or not.

I ended up in a long conversation with the mechanic who came out to service the furnace. We started by talking about my furnace and my oil tank, and ended up discussing religion and its effects. (It’s true—no one is immune from this topic around me). He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, but opted to leave the religion when he was 13, which his mother okayed. A sick younger relative who died from not having a blood transfusion caused a great explosion in his family. “There’s somebody’s life and death, and what did it hinge on? Something in religion. All of that stuff is protocol when you believe, but when you’re faced with the real deal...”

What was really amazing to me was how his family responded. There were family members in the hospital with open Bibles, lashing out at each other with competing verses. Talk about a scriptural war. If anything, it gives credence what I’ve always said—the Bible is full of contradictions. You could rationalize almost any argument scripturally. At the end of our discussion, I mentioned that people have little interest in facts when it comes to their story—psychology has proven that people will believe what they want to in spite of facts. He said, “I know why that is. People love stories.” And I think he is exactly right. Humans are walking houses of stories. We run entirely on stories.

I’ve been clearing things out of my house these last two weeks, and as I went through some boxes under my bed, I found my graduate school notebooks. One of them was for a class on psychology and religious thought. I opened up to this note: “Psychoanalysis is seen to be threatening because it reduces human thought and nature. But it is threatening not because of reduction, but because it expands our understanding of our powers and responsibilities.” And a related quote: “Psychoanalysis is like a woman waiting to be seduced, but knows she will be underrated if she doesn’t offer resistance.” The unconscious likes to play hard to get. There’s no fun if it just “gives” it to you. And like a desirable man or woman, it is mysterious and not a little intimidating.

The notebook is useful, not only because it reminds me of things I’m trying to apply to current research and their sources, but it’s also a symbol of my time in graduate school and everything that surrounded it. In this class I met Alex, who was one of those male friends who tended to fill in emotional gaps that my then-husband left empty. (No, I never cheated with him, if that jumps into your mind. But we were pretty good friends). The margins of my notebook are filled with notes from Alex. He would sit next to me and write things in the margins—comments on the material, comments on other people in the class, comments on himself. One says, “I am tired and hungry and homicidal.” Another says, “I think Jung would call for a break about now...” There’s even a whole marginal discussion about Don Henley when Alex posed the question, “What is evil?” Alex was only there for a semester, then he went back to Oregon.

I notice in a section of notes about “afflictive emotions”—I have my ex-husband’s name written in the margin with exclamation points. The particular note read, “makes it difficult to tolerate unpleasant feelings or hard times.” I’m guessing this understatement was in our class discussion of Erik Erikson. I took classes on Jung in graduate school, but Erikson dominated my studies, due in no small part to my thesis advisor, with whom I took most of my courses. She was described to me as "Erikson's protege", having been mentored by him, and had even lived in the same house with he and his wife Joan. She was always hard to pin down; the school never seemed to have enough faculty in that department, and the psychology and religion program only had two full time professors. She was the teacher for the course in this notebook.

In any event, the notebook has been a boon, as I am working on a paper on Freud and Crowley. I've been more absorbed in Jungian theory all these years, and this gives me an instant refresher on Freud. It also reminds me why we keep things in general. Even the most insignificant things are symbols. Just paging through the book recalls my entire graduate religion career and everything in my life at that time. Much of it was unpleasant, and I think it's important to see some artifacts regarding the way things really were. Memory has a tendency to be selective.

A couple of days ago I stopped in briefly at a friend's house. We got into a discussion of angels, demons, and spirits. At one point in the discussion, she said to me, "It's all symbols, isn't it? Our entire life is symbols." A true statement that appears reductive, but it is not. In my notes on Carol Gilligan, I have written down: "without a theory of symbolization, it's tough to talk about what's going on."

And now I think I'd better go to work before I get into a discussion of semantics and postmodernism...

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