Champagne and the Depressive Position
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Marisa Guerin, PhD – January 19, 2021
Tomorrow, January 20, 2021, the US will inaugurate the Presidency of Joseph Biden and the Vice Presidency of Kamala Harris. There will be celebration in our house: the bubbly is on ice, and in solidarity with lots of other folks, pearls and aviator glasses will be worn!
The happiness will be great, but not quite the same as the dancing in the streets of West Philly that accompanied President Obama’s inauguration twelve years ago. Then, many of us had the feeling that we had crossed into a better America where the possibilities for justice and equality seemed, at long last, to be near at hand. I was not the only person moved to tears listening to Obama take the oath of office.
In contrast to that sunny and hopeful moment, the happy feeling today is almost 100% relief – the grateful sense that in voting President Trump out of office, we have narrowly managed to change course, away from rampant corruption, a politics of division, and the brink of authoritarianism. No illusions here; after the last four years, our nation’s fractures, inequities, racism and ignorance are visible for all to see. It’s not pretty, but that’s surely better than not seeing them, better than fantasy ideals, better than denial. Reality is the right starting point for any growth.
That’s where the “depressive position” comes in. This concept, from the Object Relations school of psychoanalysis, does not refer to someone being clinically depressed, even though that’s what it sounds like at first. The “depressive position” is the name for the growth phase in which the child begins to resolve the paranoid and schizoid experiences of infancy. In those earliest life experiences the child “splits” the good, essential mother from the bad, absent mother (or primary caregiver) -- it would be too terrifying to know that they were one and the same. Only the gradual development of a secure ego self enables the child to resolve the picture, seeing that the good and the bad reside in the same parent, in the same world, in the same loved objects.
Throughout our lives, we are vulnerable to the psychological experience of splitting if we become too anxious to hold the good and the bad as parts of one reality. At a national level, we project the unacceptable shadows of our own character into “communists” or “Islamic terrorists” or “immigrants” or “socialists” or “MAGAs” or (fill in the blanks). Sad to say, violence is close behind such fear and paranoia.
So, what could be the reason for a term like the “depressive” position to describe the maturing self? Partly, it’s because one must pass through grief to get there. To arrive at a mature and realistic relationship to the world, we must mourn the realization that neither we, nor those we need or love, are omnipotent. That’s hard – we really prefer to imagine that those we must depend on are smart and capable and caring and will never disappoint us, even though the truth is that they aren’t perfect.
And we must come to terms with a similar realization that neither we, nor those we need or love, are impotent, either. The capacity to truly take potent action comes when we can integrate the truth that we are neither perfect, nor hopeless. That our leaders, our fellow people, and our loved ones are real human beings – capable of the good and of the bad. Embracing such truth is what makes us able to love; it makes possible our compassion and our empathy -- including our patience and our willingness to forgive ourselves and others when we inevitably fail to do the good or loving thing.
When we can stand within the depressive position, we are not manically happy nor are we terminally discouraged. A clear-eyed view of reality, instead, invites us to accept ourselves and others as whole and complex persons who will sometimes disappoint us and sometimes bring us joy.
In the US, we are ending the administration of a leader who seems unable to occupy that depressive position in his own self, who seems trapped in the paranoid experience and who has evoked that raging paranoia in those devoted to him. The whole situation seems tragic to me, immeasurably sad and a frightful wake-up call to the fragility of our national project.
I am hopeful that the fractured container of national leadership can begin to be repaired. In the incoming president, we may not have the most visionary progressive or the most charismatic personality, but we do have a psychologically mature man who has grieved, who has grown, who has years of experience in arriving at good-enough, workable agreements with imperfect partners. He has opened the door for a woman to serve as our Vice President, such a historic step. Most important for our healing, he is able and willing to stand in the place of leader, willing to lean in to the awful challenges of the time, anchoring us in the confidence that he will stay at his post and do his best to steer the ship of state away from the rocks. We can ask for no more.
For that, the bubbly comes out, relief and joy have their moment, and then we all go back to the real work of justice, accountability, competent government, and working for the common good. Not magic, not miracle, just honestly struggling through complex reality to do the best we can. May we take inspiration from the commitment and powerful faith of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life and death and legacy moved mountains.
This reflection may seem simply psychological in nature; but it is my experience that the psychological and the spiritual are two languages for similar human realities. In my own way of seeing things, my faith encompasses all of my psychological perspectives in a bedrock trust that all of us and all of reality are held in a loving Providence that excludes no one, least of all our imperfect selves, and that we are co-creators of our world. Peace is the profound acceptance of reality as it is, secure in the trust that love will always have the last word.