Giles Fraser on Helplessness

The talk that most moved me last year at Greenbelt was this one by Giles Fraser on Freud and Augustine. As it happens I’m not a great fan of Augustine and have mixed feelings about Freud. But anyway, if you don’t have time to watch it, the crux is this:

We can’t fix ourselves. This is central to what Augustine is saying and Augustine’s ‘original sin’ is a way of talking about fundamental human brokenness. As an example, the church is like Alcoholics Anonymous – we turn up and the first thing we do is acknowledge our vulnerability, our need for help and our helplessness. We can’t fix ourselves.

Freud says that the trauma of our helplessness as a child is so extreme that we spend the rest of our lives working this out. The trauma of childhood is that we are unable to be in control of the sources of own  satisfaction. He goes on to say that Christianity is a way of avoiding our helplessness – having a big Daddy in the sky makes us feel less helpless.

To overcome this feeling of helplessness, human beings have two possible coping strategies:

  • Deny that we have unmet needs – ‘I don’t need you’. We sometimes sabotage our happiness by pretending that we don’t want others. We become incredibly well defended.
  • Acknowledge our needs and then bully others into satisfying our needs. We are profoundly frightened by our original helplessness so we need to be in control.

We can even become phobic of our own desires in case they become unmet desires – we are scared of going on retreat because we might want a coffee and not be able to have one. We can’t bear desiring something and not having it – hence the joy of consumerism and instant credit.

And how do we feel about those who meet our desires? We feel ambivalent. The person who satisfies us may also frustrate us – we will have an ambivalent relationship with our partners, parents and God.

Being human means being vulnerable, being dependent upon each other. The road to wholeness requires us to express our need, we have to express our vulnerability. And Giles says that Christianity, far from running away from helplessness embraces helplessness in the idea of grace. We bear with our needs in prayer, we find that it is okay to sometimes have our needs not met, we find that it is okay to have our needs not instantly met. He says that helplessness is not a curse, it is a gift, our fragility as human beings is a gift.

Happy are those who know their need of God – the kingdom of heaven is there.

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