Feeling ambivalent is painful, but Christians must learn to manage contradictory emotions
I hate Jesus. Yes, you read that right. I do. I hate Jesus. Three little words that you may think it absolutely impossible for any Christian to say, especially just before Easter Sunday. Well, I disagree. These words are essential – though wiser heads than mine would probably advise that they are best uttered in a safer forum than a newspaper column. But let me explain.
One of the things that I have discovered doing regular psychotherapy is that ambivalence is survivable. Ambivalence is the experience of having contradictory feelings about the same thing, in particular the presence of both love and hate.
Understandably, the conjunction of these emotional reactions feels highly unstable. If you love you do not hate. If you hate you do not love. That is the commonsense position. The one seems to cancel out the other.
Yet even (perhaps especially) in our most intimate relationships, both are present. In a brilliant little paper called Hate in the Countertransference, the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott suggests a number of reasons why a mother, for instance, is inclined to hate her baby. The baby is a mini tyrant. The mother has constantly to clear up its mess. It may have killed her sex and social life and reshaped her body. And what thanks does she get? The baby is “ruthless, treats her as scum, and unpaid servant, a slave”.
The baby also hates its mother. Initially, the mother is present for the baby without distance or qualification. But as the mother gradually withdraws, so the baby is forced to recognise that she is other to him and separate. The child’s sense of its own identity comes about at the same time that he suffers the trauma of love being apparently withheld. The baby cries out as it begins to appreciate that its own needs are not going to be met before they are demanded, and not instantly when they are.
There is a question of whether hate is exactly the right description for the swirling emotional turmoil of these very basic experiences. But what a “good-enough” parenting situation creates is a sense that these emotions are indeed survivable. The mother is able to absorb the baby’s hatred without actually being destroyed by it. Thus the baby learns not to be so terrified of his own hatred that he is unable ever to articulate it. This is important. It is the things we dare not articulate that have the power to run us unconsciously.
How could Christians not hate Jesus, on some level? Much of his teaching is about the renunciation of desire. And on Good Friday he suffers the most excruciating torture and execution – something he had previously told his followers that they too must be prepared to emulate: “Take up your cross and follow me.”
It’s hardly emotional rocket science that none of us takes too kindly to such an invitation or can expect to be free from dark and complex feelings if we try and follow in these impossible footsteps. Let’s call that reaction hatred, for want of another word. Because, no, I bloody well do not want to be crucified. Peter, who denied him and ran away, got that one right.
Of course, this hatred is survivable. That’s the point. In psychoanalytic terms, Jesus can absorb our hatred and is not destroyed by it. That, in part, is what is going on as he is mocked and spat upon. Mocked by the very same people that once welcomed him with open arms.
This is a crash course on ambivalence on a cosmic scale. And it is the way we learn better to love again, without fear. We are no more trapped by our own hatred. Hallelujah.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013