Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Neurosis is characterized by an idée fixe, as Freud put it--a view of the world that one refuses to reconsider even when confronted with valid opposing evidence. Jung said, "…people become neurotic when they content themselves with inadequate or wrong answers to the questions of life." One example is obsessive-compulsive disorder, a common manifestation of which is repetitive handwashing. I've washed my hands thirty times now, but I figure they're still not clean, so here goes again.

Suppose I feel my life is empty, that I lack something vital. I sense a void inside me, yearning to be filled. So I try a little retail therapy. I buy a Giants baseball cap, hoping that will do the trick. It doesn't work, though, so I buy a George Foreman grill. Nope. I know! A Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible! That satisfies me for a day or two, but then the empty sensation returns. Its pervasive discomfort slowly turns my life into a search for the literal fulfillment I seek, though I gradually forget why I'm doing it. I look for my Grail in food, sex, drugs, and a hundred other things, to no avail. My idée fixe is that my deliverance must come from something in the material world. But my deficit isn't material. No thing will suffice.

This is America's painful conundrum. Attracted by clever marketing, we're mesmerized by things. Way down deep, we know new underwear or another wristwatch won't make us whole, yet we buy anyway, persuaded by ingenious advertisements that don't promote their ostensible product as much as they promise love, security, ecstasy.

As we adhere to this glamorous but useless route, our internal skills atrophy. We come to believe that love, security, and ecstasy are actually qualities of products and not of us. We forget who we really are.

If this isn't a socially significant mental illness, hardly anything else is worthy of the name.

But it's treatable. One effective approach is knowledge of mortality, a revelation I see regularly in cancer support groups. Most cancers aren't immediately life-threatening. Having cancer doesn't mean you're going to die tomorrow, but it does underline the certainty that none of us are here forever. Thankfully, that realization is very often a lever for renovating one's life: what are my deepest values after all, and how passionately am I living them? One of my joys in this work is hearing people say, "I'm just beginning to understand what's really important."


  1. Hi, Jeff. I had not a minute to read this but I was compelled to and so glad I did! And thanks for defining neuroses - one of those things -everyone knows when they have it but don't know exactly how to define it. Weiner had (has) it.
    Always intelligent and insightful stuff here, my friend! Thanks-
    Oh, and of course you know of Stephen Levine's "One Year to Live"? (Is that the name of it?) Anyway, I'm living that way now, big time. When I start on one path, I ask myself, "What is this taking time away from?"
    Good question for us all... Retail therapy vs walking the dogs. No brainer.

  2. Not much is lost on you, Lori. What a great practice is that question, "What is this taking time away from?" If you want to know someone's belief system, don't ask them; just notice what their moment-to-moment choices are. Vaya con Dios, amiga!

  3. Great post Jeff.
    I truly share your sentiment on the topic.

    Greetings from South Africa