Overheard remarks

In connection the directed reading over Lacan that I’m supervising, I recently read Jonathan Lear’s Freud, which I assigned to make up for the fact that we can’t literally do the ideal thing to prepare for the reading of Lacan, i.e., read all of Freud 14 times in German. Lear spent some time on Freud’s dream of the botanical manuscript, the interpretation of which hinged crucially on something Freud’s father said about him, in his presence, but not to him: “He’ll never amount to anything.” I recalled that Bruce Fink had also reported the importance of overheard parental declarations in psychoanalysis — and the fact that the crucial declaration may not even be about the child himself or herself (for example, if Freud’s father made the same declaration about the neighbor boy, but Freud had misunderstood it as referring to him), an idea that for some reason struck me as deeply tragic and meaningful.

A chain of associations opened up. For instance, once when I was in grade school, I decided that I should become a spy and hid under my parents’ bed and listened to an odd conversation. My dad was evidently in a bad mood, frustrated in some way, and he said, “I feel… pissy.” It was strange to hear anything even remotely like a swearword in my house, but my mom seemed to find it more funny than alarming — a somewhat pathetic gesture that kept his anger or frustration or whatever it was from being taken seriously. I made myself known shortly after the “pissy” mood had been declared, which surely compounded my dad’s embarrassment further.

Another incident, from a class of incidents that I’d completely forgotten about: on certain Sunday mornings, it seems that my dad would confess that he was not in the mood to go to church, and my mom would normally take the route of punishing him by giving him what he wanted. Looking back on those rare mornings, when my mom always went to church by herself (leaving us kids with my dad seemed to be part of the message she wanted to send), there was always a strange atmosphere in the house, a sense of hollowness. I’d watch cartoons (normally we weren’t allowed to watch TV on Sunday mornings), but they were the crappy cartoons. Lunch would be a pale imitation of our normal “Sunday dinner” at a restaurant after church — perhaps a pizza or a bucket of KFC.

One of these Sundays, it seems my mom’s disappointment was much greater than usual. They were arguing loudly, and I overheard my mom say, “What kind of example are you setting? Your own son can’t even ask Jesus into his heart.” I found that surprising — I was in grade school (my memory is very spotty), and I guess I assumed that was not something kids were expected to do. If it was causing such controversy, though, why not? Shortly thereafter, I walked into the bedroom where my mom was getting dressed, kneeled by the bed, and declared that I intended to ask Jesus into my heart then and there. She immediately recognized that I had overheard their argument and rejected my gesture.

In many ways, my entire career as a young Nazarene consisted in similarly misfired attempts to ask Jesus into my heart. I was always the last to go up to the altar, out of a youth group whose members apparently felt they needed to be “re-saved” every week or so — and I always wondered whether it “took.” If I’m just going out of peer pressure, does it count? Is it sincere enough?

My peers seemed much more directly plugged into the desired Nazarene experience, modelled on the days when the movement appealed to the down-and-out: the notions of hitting rock-bottom, of seeing one’s life spiralling out of control into a vortex of sin, of coming to the point where the only survivable option is to turn over full control to God. Their testimonies followed the prescribed pattern. I wondered at their rich emotional lives, their torment, their spiritual struggles — and all the while, it seemed, I felt nothing. I would have been relieved to hand over full control to God, but it seemed I was always stuck with stupid, awkward old me, the weirdo who couldn’t bring himself to participate in the spontaneous public performances, who overthought everything until the moment had long passed.

What was going on in that proxy battle in which the question of my asking Jesus into my heart was first raised? Why such anger, why such dramatics, over the simple idea of skipping a week of church? My dad worked hard — I’m not sure exactly when this incident took place, but at various points in my childhood, he drove truck for sixty hours a week and had a two-hour commute each day on top of that, or else worked as the third shift manager at the terminal. It was natural that some weeks he wouldn’t feel up to church, especially since my parents had (somewhat inexplicably) chosen a church that was a half-hour drive away. What in particular did church symbolize in their struggle?

I have my ideas about that now, but at the time, I got the message: church was non-negotiable. Further, it seems that I reconciled my mom’s deep desire for me to ask Jesus into my heart and her rejection of my offer to actually do it by reasoning that it had to be done at church, in public, according to the prescribed formulas — even though this is precisely what I could never seem to bring off.

I ultimately managed to square the circle through my conversion to Catholicism, which offered an “objective” formula for initiation (I had consistently rejected baptism at the Nazarene church because in that context the objectivity seemed out of place, like cheating). Even when I hated it, I never skipped youth group — only in my senior year of high school did I refuse to go to the Nazarene youth group, and that was in order to go to the Catholic youth group instead. During my several years as an active Catholic, I missed church only a handful of times, and in fact I frequently went to daily mass (as if to make up for all the missed Sundays before my conversion).

But it was about more than church — somehow that moment seems to have structured my whole life. I took the path of obedience in order to avoid conflict, always doing my chores promptly, always meeting and exceeding expectations, always trying to anticipate ways I might inspire my mom’s wrath. She likes to relate anecdotes of my declarations that I was self-limiting my Nintendo time, or deciding to set my alarm even during the summer time — to her they seem like amusing idiosyncracies, but it all fits with the overall strategy of avoiding any occasion to disappoint her, as it is proverbial that mothers hate for their teenage sons to sleep in too late or waste their days playing Nintendo.

I kept at it even though it never “took,” even though the gesture was always, in the last analysis, rejected. I never succeeded in not disappointing my mom, nor did I succeed in asking Jesus into my heart. All I could do was give up.