Less about Oedipus and more about Existence
Mind Moves: My friend’s death in his sleep has proved a wake-up call, writes Tony Bates.
I was standing in a moving elevator when my phone rang. She broke the news to me gently.
Her brother had been on holiday in France with the new woman in his life. He had laid down to sleep, tired but happy, and had never woken up.
Her voice was strangely calm. Maybe it was shock, or simply exhaustion at having to do exactly what she was doing now, over and over again. My name had been just one on a long list of people to whom she had had to break this heart-breaking news.
He “died in his sleep”. It sounded so natural. Merciful even, when the deceased has been suffering for a long time. But terrifying when it refers to a young man in the prime of his life, who was on no one’s danger list.
I struggled to react in some fitting way. But I was in a crowded elevator, with a twisted pain deep in my gut. I could think of no appropriate response. There was no “maybe it was for the best” consolation prize, just the cold brutal fact that this amazing spirit had been taken from us. He had curled up beside his partner the night before and slipped into a sleep, forever.
I stepped out of the lift, said goodbye and stood in semi-shock on the noisy street. The “if onlys” kicked in before too long. He and I had been trying to meet up for ages and finally settled on a date for lunch. But I called him two days before and asked if we could postpone, as some deadline or other was looming.
It takes a while for loss to penetrate. The mind becomes a gatekeeper for the heart when we lose someone we care about. Some information is allowed entry while more painful truths are pushed away, until we are strong enough to absorb them.
In his later years, Freud came to realise that what bothers us is not so much our inner drives and conflicts as the nature of life itself. Our anxieties are less to do with our Oedipus Complex and more to do with our terror of existence: “the painful riddle of death”, “our anxiety in the face of life’s dangers” and “the great necessities of fate, against which there is no remedy”.
Human beings can only bear so much reality. We need a way to keep some truths at arm’s length; we rely upon a necessary and basic dishonesty about the nature of life just to keep going.
Freud believed it was necessary for the mind to repress the awareness of our death, at least for a good portion of our lives. Young people in particular need the protective illusion of immortality to take on life and invest in building a secure future. But this illusion cannot be sustained indefinitely.
Carl Jung also wrote about how as we approach middle age our eyes are opened. We feel the presence of an uncomfortable awareness that has always been there beneath layers of protective denial – I am no longer immortal.
With this realisation we either succumb to despair or find within ourselves the courage to live. The identity we have crafted to allow us to make a home in the world is suddenly less confident.
We feel more vulnerable. We sift though our priorities and become clearer about what really matters. We turn our energies to making something of our lives that can outlive us.
And out of this striving emerges a new kind of authenticity and a deeper sense of who we really are.
That phone call burned its way into my memory and I can recall it now as vividly as though it happened yesterday. Time may not heal all the wounds of grief, but it gives us a perspective that makes them bearable.
They say that a person’s death is their last gift to those left behind. Since my friend’s death, I find that every morning I wake up, however groggy I am, however broken or disturbed my sleep may have been, I am grateful to have been given another day to live.
I am aware of something on the fringe of my consciousness that wasn’t there before: my life is not a forever thing; it is a precious gift. Something to celebrate and make the most of while I can.
Tony Bates is the founding director of Headstrong – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health, www.headstrong.ie.
This article appears in the print edition of the Irish Times. Headstrong would like to thank the Irish Times for their ongoing support.