A fundamental insight of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of our childhood. It is not a particularly difficult thought; does anyone remember a clear moment in their lives when they qualitatively stopped being children? When they experienced themselves as somehow distinct from how they experienced themselves as children? When they stopped being tired, hyperactive, confused, excited, desirous, angry, jealous, insecure, and arrogant? The wager of psychoanalysis is that we never grow out of childhood, but only that we come to think that we have. As soon as we’ve done that, we close ourselves off to many possibilities and many of our own wishes. We become efficient but numb, perhaps even unhappy. It is at this point we might undergo therapy – to enter into a conversation with a trained analyst that might allow us to have a more honest and rich conversation with ourselves, our wishes, our pasts and our futures.
What was it like to be a child? What is it like to remain a child into one’s twenties, thirties, and forties? It was and is not to know what it is that we want, never completely knowing what it is we wish for when we wish for something. This is at once a rather convoluted but also a rather simple thought to understand. It is convoluted in that it assumes that we never really know what we want, when we think we want something, what we really want is something else that the first something stands for. It is simple because if one stops and thinks about it, that simply is how one comes to want and then not want things. Why am I in the mood for pizza one night and not another? When did I know that I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer? Why did I fall in love with this person and not someone else? Why did this relationship stop working? When did I realise I wanted to change careers? Why did I think I was ready to move? Why did I want that at that particular time? As soon as one puts these questions to one’s life, or to anyone else’s life, one finds that the answers sooner or later run out. “Because I just did.”
Psychoanalytic accounts of the mind pay close attention to these moments, the times when all one can say is “I just did that, I can’t quite say why. It was the right thing to do really.” The wager of psychoanalysis is that if one thinks about this moment long enough, and if one continues to describe and redescribe the process in which one came to want something through freely associating all of the thoughts, dreams, and intentions one had in the past – one will understand and be able to give some account of that wish. This account would be retrospective and incomplete by necessity. It would be structured by yet another wish that we are unaware of in the moment of reconstruction, but will come to the surface at a later point in our lives. We are always running behind the bus of our desires. Like bus schedules, our wishes are inexplicable to us. Yet they structure our actions – our actions make our wishes manifest to some extent, and the wishes become somewhat explicable. In their new explicability we find a new excitement and sense of power over ourselves.
“When I was finding myself in friendships with people who cheerfully abused me and took me for granted, I was merely repeating the friendships I had made in high school, and those friendships resembled my relationship with my best friend in primary school who constantly teased me excessively but seemed at the time to be the most dazzling personality I’d ever met… all this time I’ve been looking for his approval and didn’t know it!”
I was doing something knowable this whole time and I didn’t know it. The excitement of psychoanalysis lies in the thought, as Adam Phillips puts it, that we “suffer from a surfeit of meaningful intentions.” There’s so much thought and meaning put into every single one of our actions, our mistakes, our gestures, our laughs, our turn-ons that we can only be aware of a part of it at any point of time.