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On Sin

HARVARD DIARY

By Robert Coles | September 1984

During my pediatric residency, I was supervis­ed by a psychoanalyst who had a special interest in (and knowledge of) the phenomenon of guilt. She had her own way of listening to my reports of what I’d heard patients say; and invariably she’d re­mind me that there was “a problem of guilt” for one or another person I was seeing in psychothera­py.

I remember a particular patient, a woman of 25, a graduate student in literature, who made it hard for me to follow my supervisor’s advice in in­terpreting the “guilty feelings” that (we both thought) were responsible for a given spell of de­pression. Every time I tried to come up with a clar­ification or interpretation, I was told by my patient that I didn’t quite understand — that she was ashamed of herself, because she’d done something she knew to be wrong, whereas I was always talking to her about the guilt she felt, meaning an irra­tional or unconscious response on her part.

At the time, I wasn’t prepared to pay much at­tention to that most interesting distinction. My education and mode of thinking had persuaded me that we have all sorts of lusts and rages at work in the back of our minds, unbeknown to ourselves, and that we also experience a sense of wrongdoing within ourselves (also, rather often, unbeknown to ourselves) for having had such desires or such an­gry, even murderous surges of feeling.

Nor would I, today, doubt that the mind is, indeed, plagued by irrational and unconscious drives, which (in turn) are condemned by our con­sciences, often without our even knowing that such an arraignment or judgment has been made. What is interesting about our age is that we dwell so in­tently on such matters — as if the only kind of re­morse we really know is unconscious, and is a re­sponse not to crimes of commission or even omis­sion, but rather, of the imagination.

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