As an undergraduate psychology major, I took a course in group therapy. It was a terrific class with a brilliant professor, whose strategy for teaching us was mostly spending the semester being the therapist with our class composing the group in therapy.
One day it was my turn. That is, the focus of the group’s work was on me. I talked of my family-of-origin and my childhood experiences. I spoke of my father’s many teachings, especially of his never-ending, oft-repeated emphasis on the importance of education as a means to procure earning power and a reasonable or even comfortable livelihood.
“The garbage truck came on Mondays and Thursdays,” I told the group. “More than once he would point to the men riding outside the truck, jumping off to grab the cans and pour the refuse into the truck. ‘See them,’ he would say. ‘That’s what will happen to you if you don’t go to school and work hard.’”
I told the group that, looking back, this teaching was like a lot of my father’s teachings: true and important on its face, yet wrapped in a teaching illustration fraught with an unsettling contempt for others. “Riding on a garbage truck is honest work,” I protested. “And somebody’s got to do it.” It just felt uncomfortable to measure the potential success of my life negatively against the lives of blue collar workers. More to the point, it felt wrong.
Perhaps 20 minutes later, the topic had changed. The group was asking me about my vocation. About my decision to become a priest. I spoke of my calling. How I had discerned it. Why it was meaningful to me. My fears, hopes and dreams.
“What does your father think about religion,” the professor interjected.
And yours truly, without hesitation, opened his mouth and said, “I think he thinks about it like taking out the garbage. Somebody’s got to do it.”
The room fell silent. Suddenly everybody was staring at me. The professor had that sympathetic half-smile on his face with raised eyebrows. It’s a facial expression they teach you in therapy school. You put it on your face when your patient has said something really revelatory and important, but the patient didn’t hear himself say it, and you’re waiting for the penny to drop.
I had exhibited the quintessential Freudian slip. My unconscious had made a connection with my deeper emotional reality. I had unwittingly admitted that some part of my nexus for being a priest was formed in reaction to my father. I was going to make a living in a way that did not exactly fit his view of the world. I was defying him.
Freudian slips are almost cliché in our psychologized culture. The abiding joke that defines them is “Freudian slips are when you say one thing but mean your mother.” Always cracks me up.
Freudian slips aren’t always verbal, either. Sometimes you can see them in body language, tone, or outright behavior. When you exhibit a Freudian slip, and you catch yourself or someone else points it out, it’s unsettling to say the least. It’s like meeting a part of yourself that is a stranger. But, for me, it’s fun, too. Like a breath of fresh air. An opportunity to have more choices because now you have a more complete picture of who you truly are.
I once wrote a column about a husband and wife who competed in “free diving.” It’s a sport wherein competitors attempt to see how deep they can dive on one breath, without oxygen supply. The wife died attempting to break the world record, and my column called into critical question the risk she took that cost her life.
And, spit spot, I get an email from a friend who is a retired psychiatrist, asking me if I was being deliberately ironic, or if I had made a Freudian slip. “Must be the latter,” I said, “because I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Are you angry with women who can’t endure at great depths,” she asked simply. She was alluding, of course, to a failed relationship from which I was still healing.
Yikes. There’s that naked feeling again. That’s the price you pay when you make friends with a therapist. She was right, of course. And I liked knowing that, despite the discomfort of the knowing.
Truth floats. Our best efforts to deny it will, from time to time, leak in the most astonishing and unpredictable ways. It’s fun, mysterious and creepy all at the same time.
(Steven Kalas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)