Why We Can’t Go Home Again

In examining utopian thinking, we discovered an inner contradiction:  The goal of establishing an ideal society must be happiness, that is, the fulfillment of people’s desires, but success requires that people accept limitations on their desires.

One can soften the tension of contradiction by agreeing to less than perfect success, but still, when we recognize how disastrously some utopian experiments have failed, ranging from horrifying totalitarianism to mindless consumerism, we may suspect there’s more than just a moderate amount of tension here.

So we came to the conclusion that we must explore desire.  Why are human desires apparently endless?  Why do they often become destructive?

Espen Hammer gives us a clue when he cites Ernst Bloch’s argument that “all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home.”

The ultimate “back home” is, of course, our origin in the primal family.  Home and family with all that it might have meant – security and stability, with love and encouragement supporting our growth – is the ideal utopian situation. But virtually none of us experienced the complete fulfillment of our desires.

It was Sigmund Freud who pointed directly to this issue, locating the source of inner psychic conflict in those original desires.  He named the force of desire “Id,” meaning essentially IT, an anonymous vital life force that had to be tamed. But he also created a storm by associating this force with sexual impulses in infants and children.

Still today, many people find Freudian theory hard to accept because of this dimension. If you’re one of them, it may help you to know that I also was resistant to much of the theory, and found it all the more annoying because my resistance could be diagnosed as denial – a double-bind that I thought was extremely unfair.

Not until I began studying the work of the extraordinary biblical scholar  Avivah Zornberg  did I return to considering Freudian theory in a different light. Zornberg also had at her disposal a century of clinical work, research based on close observation of infants and children, and insights from other disciplines that contributed to deeper understandings of the phenomena of desire.  When she demonstrated how to read biblical narratives wearing the lenses of psychoanalytical insight as well as Hasidic commentaries, I came to see how this work on Desire could be helpful in understanding human psychosocial dynamics.

Here’s a summary of what I have been able to understand and integrate, simplified for the present purpose.

Humans experience almost intolerable frustration of desire before we are emotionally able to manage it. We are born totally dependent, needing almost constant presence and attention, and even the temporary disappearance of the mother is potentially traumatic. This is unlike most other mammals that are able to walk and feed themselves shortly after birth. Even when the mother is physically present, our emotional dependence on her, other early caretakers, and a supportive social environment continue to be essential to psychological stability. This level of emotional fragility is unknown in the animal kingdom.

When the infant or child experiences loss of this care and sustenance, stability is undermined. On a temporary basis, the psyche can tolerate this “missing.” But if it is too much – and individual variability is high in defining what is too much – natural desire becomes painful longing and yearning. Disappointment of desire generates irrational anger and hatred – irrational simply because it arises long before reason has any place in the psyche. Unfulfilled desire generates a search for substitutes that will replace the lost presence, and rage at substitutes that are ineffective (as eventually they all will be).

I could now see this dynamic in my experience as a mother and, watching with less involvement, as a grandmother. I write from the maternal perspective, with the understanding that this can apply to any early caretaker(s). I now understood Eros, desire, as that magnetic realm where one being extends itself toward another – the infant with radiance and with need; the mother with wonder and generosity; their gazing at one another. Through sheer energy they leap over the distance between them.

Yet she is also an independent being, while her child is not. She has thoughts that pull her away. Sometimes the baby’s desire is not met. At that instant, a chasm opens and the leap of desire becomes a fall into loneliness, abandonment into empty space. Hopefully the space is filled again, soon, so that the infant can learn that the movement from presence to absence is like the in and out of breathing, or perhaps more accurately the pleasure of eating but the discomfort of digesting, to be followed again by presence / eating.

But at some point it will become more difficult. Some accidental separation that is too long, or some willful anger or rejection, will create unbearable trauma. Or the child will experience the mother’s grief or terror, beyond his capacity to understand. Or the child will begin to sense there are other objects of the mother’s Eros, different and mysterious. (Sexualization of desire here often becomes confused with our associations from adult sexuality, so I will not use that language.)

The variants on the narrative are of infinite variety but generate the same dilemma: She is gone. Will I find her again? Must I lose her forever? How will this empty space be filled?

And when she returns — if I could put words to, say, an 8-month old’s feelings, they might be: I am so sad but – now, what? there she is, unbearably beautiful. I want to fall in her arms and weep. But will she leave again? How could she have done this? I am angry. I will not look at her. But I need her. …

The older child’s feelings become more complicated, as mirroring begins to yield some sense of “the other” with her own feelings. But they can easily be confused: Did I cause her to go away? I don’t want her to get angry at me. When I am angry she turns away. She looks sad when she sees me sad.

Virtually all of us carry some version of these traumas of dangerous and fearful absence — and some version of healing from them, or we would not be alive. Yet most of us can be triggered into trauma again, later in life. That’s when fear and rage arise, along with actions that are destructive to ourselves, to others, or both. To the extent that they were unbearable to us as children, to the extent that we were not helped to bear them, these feelings will still lurk under the surface, and may again become unbearable. Then we will turn them on ourselves (as in addiction), or outward on an enemy.

No wonder utopias don’t work. They promise a way to fulfill desire, but inevitably they fail in some dimension, and the disappointment is like losing one’s parents. Of course we would fantasize “reconciliation” with that from which we have been “estranged.” But do we really want to walk into that dangerous ground again, where we have been wounded to the heart? Or, if we take the risk to build community with others, are we always walking on eggshells, waiting for the chasm to open?

So communities degenerate into jealous factions, people become suspicious of neighbors. Authoritarian governments arise to administer the “utopia” — to manage rage and to displace one’s own rage on those lower in the hierarchy.  And “government” becomes an object of resentment too, but that is only one dimension of the frustration of desire.

I could go on.  The point is, we can’t talk about utopia or even seriously about social improvement unless we understand the volcanic dimensions of desire.

Zornberg treats these issues in her exposition of the biblical book of Numbers, entitled Bewilderments, where she follows the ancient Israelites in their wanderings in the wildness – the wilderness – of desire. We will look at her thinking more specifically in the next post.






3 thoughts on “Why We Can’t Go Home Again”

  1. As a child, albeit adult child, I can feel through the experience of frustration of desire and the pain of abandonment. It’s so real and universal. As a mother, it feels scary that satisfying my children’s desires is a losing battle. No matter how hard I try, I will not be able to satisfy my their desires, thus inevitably causing them pain and frustration, which they will likely attempt to fill with other things/feelings. Are we designed to come into the world with desires that will inevitably be frustrated? Is desire also the root of human suffering? What is this magnetic pull of desire? Is it ultimately connected to our desire for the divine, the mysterious, the inexplicable? That’s a big gap to fill…


    1. I have to say honestly: Yes, we are doomed to frustration of those primal desires! They spring from a sense of oneness that can’t be achieved after we leave the womb (and is paralleled in soul separating from Source in coming into human form). Learning to tolerate frustration probably begins in learning to tolerate delay and absence. But this is also learning to allow “mother” to be different from self and gradually thus allow “self” to be. It means consciously entering into time and its changes. Zornberg follows psychoanalytical thought in seeing this process as the way a child enters into language (including art and symbolism of all kinds), to re-present the lost object, the absent one (or One). Imagination is born, because the internal image the child carries is no longer either the original experience of Mother, nor what the mother actually is in her own self-awareness.

      We become imagined worlds, each of us, and language is how we discover the other. Painful to lose the original, but joyous to discover the potential of communion in communication. It’s such a thrill when the child learns signs or words, and there’s that moment when they put a two-word sentence together, or point to the blob of paint and tell you what it is. That delight is the intimate side of this process, the sweetness of children coming into language.

      The larger picture is that society with its world view also shapes this language. And it’s full of all these absences as well as presences. The collective aspect and how our inner struggles affect our common life is what I’m trying to understand and articulate in the current series of blog posts.

      And yes, this has implications for understanding our relationship with God or the Divine. Zornberg cites several times in her books Rabbi Nachman’s account of the process of creation in which God withdrew (tzimtzum), leaving a vacant space (chalal panui) in which “such a world as ours, with boundaries, separation, objects, space and time” could come into existence, through language. (See Bewilderments, p. 183.) The Divine absence is necessary for anything to exist, and yet that doesn’t mean there is no God. Even in the empty space we may have glimpses, or hear whispers, of Divine presence. “No one can see My Face,” not even Moses, and sometimes the absence is terrifying. Yet through the crevice in the rock, or in the jumbled messages of our dreams, something may come through.

      Do these desires cause suffering? That is what we hear in classic Buddhist teachings (among others). I would say, yes and no. Yes there is pain in frustration. But it is the attachment to a desire – almost a fixation, I would say, that freezes a certain picture of what one “MUST have” — that causes suffering. “Nothing but X will satisfy me” is a voice of desperation at the loss one was unable to fully accept, a sadness that couldn’t be felt. Rather than imagination finding (temporary) satisfaction and achievement in one expression, then moving to another, rather than flow and breadth and depth and growth, a person becomes stuck, often in repeated behaviors that never satisfy (addiction, obsession, etc.).

      Filling the absence with other things, feelings, and relationships is good and healthy. In your question about art on another post, you were pointing to the way the gaps are filled with inspired expressions. Friendships and lively communities are also inspired expressions, they breathe life into the gaps. A healthy religious life offers pathways to reconnect with spirit or soul, the greater oneness. Each of us has our ways.

      And, when we start feeling the absence, or noticing its devitalizing effect on others, we need to enter into it (with help). Touching more deeply our sense of loss is part of the process of recovering from it. As a chaplain, this part is familiar to you.


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