Freud’s requiem and the joy of transience

This writing is a translation of an original short essay written by Sigmund Freud in November 1915. It’s often referred to as his ‘Requiem’ (an act or token of remembrance) and is quite a positive outlook on the true nature of our existence.

I came across this writing during one of the darkest moments of my life and I offer it as a crutch to everyone else.

Enjoy!

On Transience, By Sigmund Freud (Novemeber, 1915)
Translation by James Strachey

Not long ago I went on a summer walk through a smiling countryside in the company of a taciturn friend and of a young but already famous poet. The poet admired the beauty of the scene around us but felt no joy in it. He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction, that it would vanish when winter came, like all human beauty and all the beauty and splendour that men have created or may create. All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.

The proneness to decay of all that is beautiful and perfect can, as we know, give rise to two different impulses in the mind. The one leads to the aching despondency felt by the young poet, while the other leads to rebellion against the fact asserted. No! it is impossible that all this loveliness of Nature and Art, of the world of our sensations and of the world outside, will really fade away into nothing. It would be too senseless and too presumptuous to believe it. Somehow or other this loveliness must be able to persist and to escape all the powers of destruction.

But this demand for immortality is a product of our wishes too unmistakable to lay claim to reality: what is painful may none the less be true. I could not see my way to dispute the transience of all things, nor could I insist upon an exception in favour of what is beautiful and perfect. But I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss in its worth.

On the contrary, an increase! Transience value is scarcity value in time. Limitation in the possibility of an enjoyment raises the value of the enjoyment. It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it. As regards the beauty of Nature, each time it is destroyed by winter it comes again next year, so that in relation to the length of our lives it can in fact be regarded as eternal. The beauty of the human form and face vanish for ever in the course of our own lives, but their evanescence only lends them a fresh charm. A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely. Nor can I understand any better why the beauty and perfection of a work of art or of an intellectual achievement should lose its worth because of its temporal limitation. A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues which we admire to-day will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers, or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases; but since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.

These considerations appeared to me incontestable; but I noticed that I had made no impression either upon the poet or upon my friend. My failure led me to infer that some powerful emotional factor was at work which was disturbing their judgement, and I believed later that I had discovered what it was. What spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning. The idea that all this beauty was transient was giving these two sensitive minds a foretaste of mourning over its decease; and, since the mind instinctively recoils from anything that is painful, they felt their enjoyment of beauty interfered with by thoughts of its transience.

Mourning over the loss of something that we have loved or admired seems so natural to the layman that he regards it as self-evident. But to psychologists mourning is a great riddle, one of those phenomena which cannot themselves be explained but to which other obscurities can be traced back. We possess, as it seems, a certain amount of capacity for love—what we call libido—which in the earliest stages of development is directed towards our own ego. Later, though still at a very early time, this libido is diverted from the ego on to objects, which are thus in a sense taken into our ego. If the objects are destroyed or if they are lost to us, our capacity for love (our libido) is once more liberated; and it can then either take other objects instead or can temporarily return to the ego. But why it is that this detachment of libido from its objects should be such a painful process is a mystery to us and we have not hitherto been able to frame any hypothesis to account for it. We only see that libido clings to its objects and will not renounce those that are lost even when a substitute lies ready to hand. Such then is mourning.

My conversation with the poet took place in the summer before the war. A year later the war broke out and robbed the world of its beauties. It destroyed not only the beauty of the countrysides through which it passed and the works of art which it met with on its path but it also shattered our pride in the achievements of our civilization, our admiration for many philosophers and artists and our hopes of a final triumph over the differences between nations and races. It tarnished the lofty impartiality of our science, it revealed our instincts in all their nakedness and let loose the evil spirits within us which we thought had been tamed for ever by centuries of continuous education by the noblest minds. It made our country small again and made the rest of the world far remote. It robbed us of very much that we had loved, and showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.

We cannot be surprised that our libido, thus bereft of so many of its objects, has clung with all the greater intensity to what is left to us, that our love of our country, our affection for those nearest us and our pride in what is common to us have suddenly grown stronger. But have those other possessions, which we have now lost, really ceased to have any worth for us because they have proved so perishable and so unresistant? To many of us this seems to be so, but once more wrongly, in my view. I believe that those who think thus, and seem ready to make a permanent renunciation because what was precious has proved not to be lasting, are simply in a state of mourning for what is Lost. Mourning, as we know, however painful it may be comes to a spontaneous end. When it has renounced everything that has been lost, then it has consumed itself, and our libido is once more free (in so far as we are still young and active) to replace the lost objects by fresh ones equally or still more precious. It is to be hoped that the same will be true of the losses caused by this war. When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.

Giving freely, confidence and human expression

Do you consider yourself a generous person? You give to charity, help friends and colleagues out when they get into trouble?  If so, that’s good, but let’s not shelve a consideration of generosity just yet.  Let’s dig a bit deeper first. 

What does giving really mean?

Europe has had a refugee crisis for years yet all our politicians talk about is what we can ‘afford’ to do; ‘How many people can we afford to take to our shores?’  Don’t worry, this is not a political post, but I want to make this point.  In the UK our leaders have decided on a little quota of refugees that we can take; ‘little’ as they do not want to inconvenience existing British society. Heaven forbid anyone should have to wait longer for their medical treatment on account of some ill people from foreign shores. This highlights such a lack of generosity, something that feels to me like a King throwing his scraps from the table to the poor.

Now, I admit my faults in this too. A major part of this blog and these posts are about me figuring out how best to think about things in my life so I can form them into something approaching coherence which can then guide how I operate in the world.  And upon reflection, I definitely confess to having been the King at the table who has very often only spared that which can be spared.  

However, I will stand up now and make my statement; ‘Hello my name is Simon and I confess to clinging too much to my possessions, my thoughts, myself and in fact nearly everything I value’.  I vow to do better. In fact, I want to put forward a discussion of giving as a vital part of human expression that can uplift our existence. A giving that manifests as the opposite of sacrifice but rather as an expression of my being, my confidence, and my freedom.

Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.
Erich Fromm
Letting go

Sadly for me, it took a total life crisis and the loss of much of importance to really see that grasping and clinging to things was not actually providing the satisfaction that I thought it would.  You see, this clinging feeling came from a fundamental base of insufficiency. I had this underlying feeling that I never had enough, so I could spare little.  My satisfaction was firmly rooted in the belief that happiness stemmed from the stuff in my life, my possessions, my thoughts, my time, my partner and myself. Ultimately though, the clinging generated a constant feeling of tension and stress. There was this underlying worry about either ‘how to get more’ or ‘how to not lose what had’.  Breaking down this mentality not only made me less tense but also opened up my world  to a freer generosity.

This is not exactly a new insight, the Greek philosopher Epicurus (crica 300 BC) stated:

If thou wilt make a man happy, add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.
Epicurus
 So what brought this change about for me?

In short, having children and a major life crisis (Link to my post about finding emptiness). My children gave me a very interesting opening into what it means to give in the truest sense. With my children, I know that they will leave me, they will one day go their own way, they will be independent and yet I still have this strong desire to give to them.  In fact, parents stand up! Let’s be honest, our little darlings don’t very often thank us for what we give yet there is still this deep sense of satisfaction in giving to them.

A good example for me is the lovely warm satisfaction and delight of watching them eat. They are simply sat at the table scoffing down the dinner but I love it, all of it, they way they roll into the kitchen with the swagger of  royalty, then the sight of them in their chairs, heads down, plate of food in front of them, dessert to their left, fruit smoothie front and right, them contented, a little bliss for me as a parent and a pure gift from me to them. I look at them in these moments and think, bless you, enjoy my darlings.

Even if you do not have children I am sure you have had similar feelings with ‘feeding’.  Perhaps with animals, throwing bread or seeds to birds in a park, feeding seagulls at the beach or animals at the zoo.

This kind of giving is an expression of love in a true sense and that’s something that I find myself searching for in life.  It’s giving without receiving, it’s a loss of time, money, energy with no return compensation, except that inner joy that giving can generate.  You might say, ‘but they give you love back?’  They do, yes, but like the animal in the park, they are ultimately destined to leave and live their lives. So there is also a touch of transcending the false notion of permanence;  giving knowing something will not last is all about a pure moment of human expression of the truth of reality. The notion that ‘I know it will not be mine – but I do it anyway out of love for it’ And it’s that feeling of giving regardless, a feeling that I found through my children (thank-you darlings) that prompted an expansion of generosity into other areas of my life.

Mother Teressa reportedly had a version of  Kent Kieth’s ‘Paradoxical Commandments’ on the wall of her orphanage in Calcutta which summarizes this notion so very beautifully:

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

Getting back to the issue of children and/or romantic partners it’s worth mentioning that a clandestine style of giving is not exactly the notion. One aspect of generosity when limited exclusively to close partners, is that generosity might be something of a false dawn. Erich Fromm commented that some romantic relationships can lead to the formation of a joint self (aka a joint ego).  In this mode, the self-view expands to encompass the other into oneself. A partnership becomes one but is still very much disjoint from the outside word. This could extend to families which become one unit but are essentially hostile and defensive to the outside world. Fromm wrote about this as ‘Egoisme a deux’ – the ego of two. So in that sense, giving and loving is not really achieved with another as the other is simply subsumed into the self – the ego of two. This notion could be extended further  into insular organizations, be that groups of friends with no generosity for those outside the group, religion, societies and even to countries.

So what caused this ‘stinginess’ in life?

I think most of my life, and life in general, involves trading not giving. Take romantic relationships as an example, in some way there is this need for something, I cook dinner, I get thanked. I stay at home and watch the kids so my partner could go out, she reciprocates. I love you, so you love me. All goes well until someone perceives that they are not getting their slice of the cake. At this point, they might begin to feel unappreciated or even abused in the relationship. They might ask, ‘Why am I the one doing all the giving?’

The problem is that in most of our lives, we trade, we don’t give and this certainly carries into our supposed love relationships too.  Trade is the transfer of something in return for something, the transfer of money, time, goodwill and anything else that can be bartered and exchanged for something.  Perhaps receiving in return, money, time, thanks, goodwill, future favors, good behavior and ‘love’.

Trade has become such a central part of the subconscious of Western life that it is embedded in the fabric of nearly every transaction we make with others in the world. Western society values good trades, the so-called ‘clever man’ is able to trade profitably, he gives away less than he receives.  Conversely, only ‘a fool’ gives away things for less than their worth, be that time, love, money, etc.

What a fool l am now, and what a glad fool

At many points in my life, I have felt ashamed to give freely to others. I have also had to explain why I am giving something away. Western society actually made me feel wrong for doing something out of compassion. This does not necessarily or solely include possessions, money or effort, on a more intimate level, ‘giving’ love can be a challenge.

But giving – by definition – involves the loss of something. This might sound severe as the act of giving generates such an inner pleasure, but the point I am trying to make is that to truly give, is to give without any expectation in return and that involves parting with something.  However, there is some inner gain as it feels like a liberation and freedom.  Free because giving does not make any demands that require judgement of value (nothing is expected to be returned therefore there is no weighing of its merit). It’s simply an act without the judgment, even on the part of yourself, except perhaps that you feel it might brings something good to another. So it’s a moment of freedom and letting go.

So how about giving oneself?

Can we be open, free and remove the armor that shields our emotions and protects our egos? I think for many people, myself included, interactions between people can involve a certain shyness because someone is afraid to give themselves. Ultimately I think this comes from needing something in return? From looking for the trade, perhaps some approval?  ‘Shall I smile – oh wait I cannot smile at this person as they may not smile back’.

Giving without any expectation of anything in return liberates this tension since nothing is expected in return, there is no fear of rejection and as such, there is a sense of total freedom. I will smile at you, I will talk to you, I will help you, I will love you. I don’t worry about it being returned – it’s a gift.  Living like this brings about freedom.  It’s like the joy of throwing a stone into the sea, watching them fly freely through the air before disappearing beneath the water. Thrown and gone.  Being free with yourself is a similar feeling, your speech and deeds fly freely with no grand purpose, you will not get them back once you let them fly, but neither do you need to. 

Finally, the notion of giving can itself become superfluous. Since giving is predicated on relinquishing ‘something’ owned – something held personally – if there were nothing owned or held then there would be nothing to give.  I believe this is the super human consciousness of enlightened beings and Buddhist monks.  And it’s something that seems so beautiful and peaceful.  Something that my musing here have, in some way, enabled me to at least touch;  the beautiful notion of what it must be like to let go completely and therefore have everything to give and nothing to lose.  What a beautiful and free loving place to be.

Peace.

Short quote from Jung on alchemical studies

A lovely quote from Carl Jung describing one of his patient’s awakening and his subsequent acceptance:
Out of evil, much good has come to me. By keeping quiet, repressing nothing, remaining attentive, and by accepting reality – taking things as they are, and not as I wanted them to be – by doing all this, unusual knowledge has come to me, and unusual powers as well, such as I could never have imagined before.
I always thought that when we accepted things they overpowered us in some way or other. This turns out not to be true at all, and it is only by accepting them that one can assume and attitude towards them.
So now I intend to play the game of life, being receptive to whatever comes to me, good and bad, sun and shadow forever alternating, and, in this way, also accepting my own nature with its positive and negative sides. Thus everything becomes more alive to me.
What a fool I was! How I tried to force everything to go according to way I thought it ought to.”
an ex patient of C. G. Jung (Alchemical Studies, pg 47)

Short: ‘Do something today to challenge your ego’

How about a gentle exercise of conscious awareness? Rather than strengthening the ego, why not try to knock it down a little.  How? Just consider this for a moment:

Expose something you find awkward,
Discard something clung to,
Admit something you fear to admit,
Throw a caution to the wind,
Jump without looking,
Trust the ground of your being,
Be free.

If you find this notion scary, then hold that feeling because that’s your ego.  The something that you hold dear, the part of you that you could not bear to expose – even to yourself – that tiny piece of the intolerable.

Can you imagine what would happen if you let it go?  Just one small thing, perhaps just admitting something to yourself.  Try, everything will be okay.  In fact, you might find you feel a lot lighter without the burden.

Peace.