Opinion | I Don’t Need to Be a ‘Good Person.’ Neither Do You.


The feeling of transgression, framed by guilt, fascinated Sigmund Freud. For him, transgression was always tied to parental expectations or self-reproach for criticisms of those whom we once revered. Breaking taboos shakes you to the core. Hiding this personal affair under the collective judgments bandied about on the internet — dressed up in the language of therapy speak — isn’t bringing us closer to knowing what is in our own hearts. This new godlike, all-knowing critic has us by the proverbial nose.

Listening to my patients, I’ve come to wonder if piety, an infinite demand for dutiful conduct and unthinking reverence, is what is being asked of us endlessly in the current climate. Feelings of guilt and shame hover about like a thick fog. Even forms of defiant transgression — those of the online provocateurs, the proudly “problematic” comedians, the contrarian would-be intellectuals — seem an admission, compulsively flirting with punishment. We are failing to get at the real nature of our desires. A new sanctimoniousness is leaving us without a feeling for what is true or real, both thin-skinned and disaffected.

I’m reading Annie Ernaux. She published her diary, “Getting Lost,” about a torrid affair at 50, after a long, stable marriage that left her dissatisfied. “It’s obvious that nothing is more desirable and dangerous than losing the sense of self,” she writes, “at least in my case.” And later: “For five years, I’ve ceased to experience with shame what can be experienced with pleasure and triumph (sexuality, jealousy, class differences). Shame spreads over everything, prevents further progress.” She only discovered passion, and its likeness to writing, later in life. This was less the story of an erotic tryst than a tale of “how dearly we pay for happiness” and the principle, “wondrous and terrifying,” of desire.

Many of my patients are mired in a shame that flattens them, making searching for pleasure impossible. I always laugh when I remember a turning point for one of them. He kept repeating to me that one thing or another “just wasn’t working out.” Thinking about the ways he neglected feelings of exhilaration in his body, I said to him that every time he said that I kept imagining him going to the gym. A silly comment on the surface, it nevertheless touched him deeply. “Working out” was a heavy topic for his parents, embroiled in politics. He broke free for a short time through a different kind of labor — one more manual, athletic, tactile, erotic. In adolescence he took a job in an automobile shop, played with carpentry, started drawing, chased girls. Returning to these memories opened up a new intensity, exploring riotous sexual fantasies about me, questioning himself ruthlessly as a parent too easily frustrated by his children’s wants, and riding a motorcycle again.


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