Skip to content

America and Its Discontents

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of common unhappiness

It will be left to future historians, if there are any, to explain to their contemporaries why a profession came into existence in the twentieth century whose well paid practitioners sat in an office while people otherwise unknown to them talked about their unhappiness, one after the other, an hour at a time. I’ve been a therapist for thirty-five years, and I still don’t really understand it. I don’t speak in Delphic tongues or offer holy absolution or perform shamanic hocus pocus; I really don’t do much of anything but sit there, listen, and try to tell the truth. Not that it’s easy; it’s taxing to spend your days immersed in other people’s misery, and whatever is wrong with me that prompted me to do this with my life, and left me able to withstand it, is not improved by the exercise. Still, I’m grateful to the marketplace for providing me with such an improbable way to make a living.

I suppose those historians will also note the inexhaustible genius of a political economy that created this marketplace, and ensured a robust supply of the pathologies for which renting a rapt audience by the hour was the cure. Still more impressive, in retrospect, will be the imposing professional infrastructure—offices, licenses, the monetizable unit of time—for legitimizing the listening caste.

I envy these future investigators the opportunity to make of psychotherapy a specimen in the autopsy of consumer capitalism, or even a leading indicator of its collapse: if paid listeners are what we came to, they will probably say, then the rot must have been deep. In the meantime, stuck as we are in our own time, it is enough to note the profession’s presence, and its weirdness, and to say that there are moments when the seams that stitch it into daily life are suddenly visible. At such intervals, honest therapists realize that they are not only incapable of doing much about the suffering they are witnessing; they are part of the problem.


I refer you to November 9, 2016, the day after the most recent day that will live in infamy. I’ve been at this job through many public catastrophes, and I’ve been struck, for better and worse, by the therapeutic dyad’s ability to shut the door on the world even when it is actively burning, to note (or not) that the towers collapsed or a school got shot up, and then return to our private concerns. So when on that Wednesday, no matter how much they (and I) might have wanted to get back to their intimate dramas, if only as a refuge, we found ourselves unable to speak of anything else but the ascension of Trump. It seemed remarkable, an inversion of business as usual. The political had become personal in the most literal fashion.

Each afflicted person was afflicted in his or her own way, but underneath all their reactions ran a common current, one that transcended the categories into which my colleagues and I generally sort our clients. The stoics and the obsessives, the anxious and the depressed, the dissolute and the uptight: they all seemed stunned and downcast and, since many of them had awakened in the wee hours to check the news, exhausted. It was as if overnight each person had experienced an unexpected death in the family and had come to me in the early stages of mourning.

If psychotherapy, as Sigmund Freud supposedly said, is a cure through love, and if love, as Milan Kundera definitely said, is constant interrogation, I was not curing anyone that day. I was not interrogating their sadness. At the time, it seemed beyond question, self-evident, which is what happens when a therapist is feeling the same thing as a client—a less than reliable way to judge what is beyond question, I admit. It wasn’t until the intensity subsided over the next weeks and its muted version took up residency in the post-election world, that the oddness of the reaction struck me. Why were we all so sad?

November 9, 2016: It was as if overnight each person had experienced an unexpected death in the family and had come to me in the early stages of mourning.

I can’t really ask anymore—the whole premise of therapy, upheld sometimes more than others, is that it’s about you and not me—so unless someone volunteers the question, I’m left to guess. But if that happens, I’m ready with an answer: there’s nothing to make you feel helpless like watching 63 million of your neighbors converge upon something so foolish and dangerous as to elect a carny barker, and not a very good one at that, to the presidency. The election ends, and, good democrats that we are, we must accept its outcome just as surely as we must accept a death. There are no do-overs. Flail about all you like—when the cause is lost, it’s lost. You watch a loved one decline and expire, your dog gets hit by a car, your lover leaves you for the last time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Helplessness is the gateway to grief, and to grieve—at a wake, during shivah, in a chance encounter at the store—is to talk, to bear witness to the loss until you’ve absorbed it.

But what exactly had been lost? After all, the day after the election the country remained intact, the economy hummed along, there weren’t troops in the street or militias in the woods (or not very many, at least). Had I asked, I probably would have heard that for some it was team pride, for others the sense that something precious to them—reproductive rights, racial tolerance, gender equality—was suddenly threatened, for others still the narcissistic injury of having such a repellent man embody the country in which they had been trained to take pride. I might even have found in their private histories the template for their response.

But it’s possible the sadness has its source in a deeper unconscious than the personal one, and I don’t mean Jung’s quasi-mystical collective one. I mean the historical unconscious, the one that turns us, before we know it, into people who, with certain expectations of ourselves and our world, do things like go to therapy to confess our sadness; people who think that the past can somehow redeem the present and make the desired future possible, if only we can understand it.

Mourning in America

That may be hardest when it comes to loss, which almost always, at least temporarily, throws the future into question. No one understands this, or much of anything else about grief, not even the experts. My industry nearly shook itself apart a few years ago over the question of how to distinguish normal mourning from clinical depression. The squabble was too stupid to be worth recounting, but something important got lost in its noise: that no argument like this is possible unless we assume there is such a thing as normal mourning.

We’d like to think so, of course. We’d like to believe natural selection has endowed us with a mechanism that reliably cleans up the wreckage of loss, and, after a decent interval, restores our faith that whatever we love will remain with us forever. But natural selection doesn’t give a rat’s ass about our sorrow. And besides, if you suffer (or witness) enough loss, you’ll likely come to doubt, to distrust, and finally to discard this confidence, and to recognize that the capacity to soldier on in the face of the inevitable, let alone to venture love, is inexplicable. You’ll then perhaps see that bereavement is infinitely more complicated than any other wound and that healing from it, whatever that may mean, is a miracle.

But if there is any standard for sorting normal from pathological grief, it is that normally we know for whom or what we grieve. Sigmund Freud distinguished melancholia from mourning on exactly these grounds, arguing that grief becomes pathological when it is prolonged so far past any actual loss that its object can no longer be identified. Melancholics hold onto a loved one in order to stave off the feeling of loss. Their condition, Freud indicated, will not remit until melancholia is transformed into normal mourning, at which point the loss can recede into the past.

But while Freud, and all of us talking-cure practitioners who have come after him, looked to the family as the source of the response to loss, he also recognized a mourning that was neither the persistence of memory or the shock of recent bereavement. His case study was not a patient but himself, and the traumatic circumstance was not incest or domestic violence but a catastrophe unprecedented in its scope and horror: World War I. The outbreak of war, he wrote in 1915,

shattered our pride at the accomplishments of our civilization, our respect for so many thinkers and artists, our hopes of finally overcoming the differences among peoples and races. . . . It unleashed within us the evil spirits that we thought had been tamed by centuries of education on the part of our most noble men. It made our fatherland small again. . . . In this way, it robbed us of so much that we had loved and showed us the fragility of so much that we had considered stable.

“Transience,” as Freud called this short essay, is not well known, nor does it tell us what is to be done when “that which is precious has not proved to be enduring.” Within a year, he had turned his attentions back to domestic and personal misfortunes, the kind most suited to his treatment. The rosy forecast that ends the paper—“once mourning is overcome . . . we will once again build up everything that the war has destroyed, perhaps on firmer foundations and more lastingly than before”—would be virtually his last word on the subject until the much darker Civilization and its Discontents, written as the Nazis were gaining power in Germany. It’s a pity Freud dropped the subject so quickly, not because he might have offered solutions, but because, in the fifteen years between the essays, something far more decisive for the future of psychoanalysis—and maybe for the future of democracy—had occurred: psychoanalysis came to America.

The Happy Republic

Actually, Freud had brought it to America in 1909. But he hated his time here, and the feeling was largely mutual, so as E.L. Doctorow put it in Ragtime, “at least a decade would have to pass before Freud would have his revenge and see his ideas begin to destroy sex in America forever.” Freud may have made us more honest about our urges and more cognizant of how they manifested in daily life, but he also yanked away a shroud that gave sex its mystery, the shadows that deepened it even as they obscured it.

I’m not complaining, either as a civilian or a therapist; it turns out that honesty and ecstasy can indeed inform and augment each other. But in insisting that we repress the instinctual life epitomized by sex at our own peril, Freud was not suggesting we cast off all restraint in favor of our emotional lives. To the contrary, our job as civilized people was to find (presumably through psychoanalysis) what it is about ourselves that we have to protect one another from, and then to muster the self-control to do that—and all without ever pretending that we have vanquished the beast within. In return for replacing unconscious repression with conscious renunciation, we get a civilization, and all its bounty—stability, a sense of purpose, the fulfillments of culture.

What we don’t get out of this contract, however, is happiness; instead, we get, as Freud famously put it, “common unhappiness” rather than “neurotic misery.” That’s probably the real reason that it took a while—much longer than a decade, really—for psychoanalysis to find its footing in America: it’s one thing to ruin sex and quite another to ruin the pursuit of happiness by declaring tragic resignation to be our proper destiny.

Still, it was only a matter of time before the marketplace offered a solution, a way to use the analytic accoutrements—the couch, the legitimacy, the hour—to serve that prospect. By the time I got to therapy school in the mid-1980s, Freud’s interior landscape had been transvalued—the source no longer of trouble, but of wisdom. No one ever said it out loud, and I didn’t realize it until much later, but the purpose of psychotherapy had become finding what it is in ourselves that we need to protect from the world. The safe space of the therapy office was not only a refuge but a model, a foretaste of the way the world ought to be: full of interlocutors whose job was to love us unconditionally and to help us to love ourselves the same way, so that we could be all that we can be.

The World and I

The Freudian imperative to seek fearlessly for the traces of instinctual life still reigned, though not with suspicion or an eye toward restraint. Instead, Freud’s doctrines, once fully transmitted to the New World, took on a peculiarly American coloration: steeped in personal affirmation, the therapeutic faith rested here on a conviction that in instinct, and especially in the emotions, lay wisdom. And a corollary to this faith was the bedrock belief that in psychological pain lay not the evidence that we had failed to surrender instinct to civilization but rather that civilization had failed to protect us from injury. Therapists would help people become virtuosi of their psyches, exquisitely tuned to each fine gradation of inner suffering, managing their emotional lives to protect themselves against incursion. We set about, in short, asking not what we can do for country but how we can stop country from doing to us.

This therapist-led decoupling of the personal from the political has been much noted, and mostly lamented, by scolds from the right and other schoolmarms, and I don’t wish to follow in their path. Rather, I would just point out that behind both the affirmative and the dour views of our interior life lurks a question that has been haunting us since the Enlightenment: now that God is dead and priests are just men spouting superstition, now that we’ve taken matters into our own hands, just how are we supposed to live with one another? Now that everything is permitted, now that rules are whatever we make them to be, how can we tame those evil spirits ourselves? Implicit in the therapeutic answer is a bet—the same bet that lies behind science and democracy and free market capitalism: that we are self-limiting creatures, that given freedom and self-knowledge and the opportunity to express them, we will be able to ride the long arc of history toward progress.

But, as Dr. Phil might ask, how’s that working out for you? Not so well, it seems, at least not if you are living in Trumpistan, where those Enlightenment virtues look like political correctness and globalism and the elitism of the effete, where the invisible hand gives you its back and reason tells you that your moral standards are only so much prejudice and science insists that the car in which you drive to your shitty, low-paying job is making the ice caps melt. In this blighted province, even if you have never set foot in a therapist’s office, even if you see the profession as a vast snowflake factory, you have absorbed the truth of the therapeutic: that grievance is always justified, that the victim always has the high moral ground, and that if you are frustrated or worried or despairing or otherwise discomfited, then that means you have been robbed of your birthright. Because you were put on this earth, or at least in this country, to pursue happiness; if you can’t even dream of that anymore, then you are entitled to redress. And if the channels through which redress is achieved are closed off to you, then perhaps you should hitch your wagon to a bulldozer intent on carving out a new one.

Forward Into the Past

“You cannot exaggerate the intensity of man’s inner irresolution and craving for authority,” Freud told a congress of psychoanalysts in 1910. That yearning is part of what he called elsewhere an “archaic heritage” that, when awakened, seeks “a paramount and dangerous personality, towards whom only a passive-masochistic attitude is possible, to whom one’s will must be surrendered.” A century ago, that probably wasn’t as cheap a shot as it is now that victim-blaming has become a thing, and while it points to the impatience of an elite man with those craven people, it does not explain the sadness that came into my office that day and that I think still has not worn off. It does, however, get at one of our more melancholy emotions, one that Donald Trump has mined unrelentingly: nostalgia. Like all nostalgia, the yearning to make America great again is a yearning for the never-was, and it tells us more about what is missing from the present than what was present in the past.

But in the Freudian view, the success of the Trumpian con should point us to our archaic heritage—and indeed the past to which Trumpism aspires lies much deeper than the mid-twentieth century, or whatever period those red hats are referring to. Trump promises more than the restoration of white men to their rightful place at the top of the org chart. He promises to make the world comprehensible again without the intercession of pointy-headed elites and the nagging of social justice warriors. He urges us all to shake loose the surly bonds of civilized conduct: to make science irrelevant and rationality optional, to render truth obsolete, to set power free to roam the world, to lift all the core conditions written into the social contract—fealty to reason, skepticism about instincts, aspirations to justice. We then, at last, will be restored to the primordial American state of nature—free to consume, to pillage, to destroy, to wall out our neighbors, and to hate people for living in shitholes.

Trump indeed does more than promise: with his profligate lies, his proud immorality, his sneering disdain for fairness, his disregard for consistency or any other kind of integrity, he embodies those promises. He is the anti-Aufklärer, and his deepest appeal lies in an unspoken promise that lies behind the others: to undo the Enlightenment, to free us from the burdens of living rationally in a world where nothing is settled and where everything—economic well-being, national borders, gender identities, domestic arrangements—is up for grabs, let the strongest prevail.

That’s probably the reason that it took a while for psychoanalysis to find its footing in America: it’s one thing to ruin sex, and quite another to turn the pursuit of happiness into tragic resignation.

If the machine guns and mustard gas of World War I revealed to Freud the fragility of what had seemed solid, the election of Trump reveals its decrepitude, if not its collapse. Without a single shot, with hardly any sort of sustained violent break at all, in a collective ejaculation of rage and resentment, a near-majority of the electorate went with its gut and rejected not a candidate or a party but an ethos shaped over five centuries, of which Freud was an acolyte and the odd profession he spawned an apotheosis. They rose up against the demand imposed by modernity—that we use reason to figure things out for ourselves—and replaced it not with the old rules, but with impulse itself, with the vengeance and cruelty and rage that Trump so brilliantly embodies. Freud’s answer—that we find our limits only when we recognize just how badly we need them—was insufficient, and its transvalued version even more so. As John Adams recognized in noting the way that democracy “wastes, exhausts, and murders itself,” individuals may conquer themselves but “nations and large bodies of men, never.”

Still, the problem may lie not in our answers but in the question itself: it may be that life on earth is too complex and chaotic for humans to manage, that our randomly acquired strengths and flaws did not evolve to meet that challenge, and that the idea that we can fashion an order that lasts is merely a conceit that reached its peak with the Enlightenment. Another of those conceits is that progress is inevitable, and it is possible that on the other side of the long darkness upon which we are now embarking is an understanding of ourselves and the world just as unimaginable to us as democracy was to a Lascaux cave artist, and that will not contain within it the seeds of its own destruction.

But that’s far from certain, and here is where my profession and all it has taught us about the value of the interior landscape will come in handy. For we have only just begun to grieve the passing of this great experiment, of the idea that we will find in ourselves the ability to run our own show, and as we watch ourselves decline, we will have to get very good at mourning. My colleagues and I stand ready to assist.