Tending The Compulsive Heart.

I’m browsing the shelves of a charity shop. Nearby, a customer is in conversation with the store manager. She has come in to collect some item that has been set aside for her.

‘I’ll just go and get it,’ asserts the manager and heads for the backroom with the kind of competance that gives bouncing babes their rosy cheeks.

‘It’s ok’, says the disgruntled customer, ‘I don’t mean to bother you.’

‘No bother,’ trills the bustling matron, now carving a confident wake across the store, the success of her task a foregone conclusion.

‘I’ll come back another time’, says the customer quietly and by the time the manager has returned with her item she has tipped herself back out into the friendless street, collar turned to the wind.

This tragic insistence that life will always thwart her intentions, so great that it must negate reality to do so, is the stuff of Monty Python sketches.

In fact it is quite funny…

But my guess is that she has lived like that on a daily basis for years…

not so funny..

every new opportunity to re-invent herself has to be passed up for yet another chance to replay the familiar and eternally dissappointing round, a groundhog life of compulsively repeated victimhood and rejection…

in the face of plenty.


A story that typifies this contemporary example and gives us some clues about it is the tale of Sisyphus, who was condemned by Zeus to push a boulder up a steep hill only to have it roll all the way back down just as he reached the top.

His labour is eternal, grinding, deathly.

It turns out that Sisyphus, begging your pardon, King Sisyphus, was an old fashioned tyrant not too different from the charity shop customer who, despite her helpless posturing, aggressively forced circumstances into a mould that violated the manager’s helpful and competant attitude, attacked her kindness and loaded her down with projections of meanness and witholding….

Albert Camus saw Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life and of course the compulsive repetition of self-defeating actions do seem absurd…

until we know the context.

‘In many cases the patient who comes to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. Therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal … secret, the rock against which he is shattered…’ CG Jung

In his autobiography Jung gives the example of a woman incarcerated for many years in the asylum who made curious rhythmic movements with her hands and arms. They were easily dismissed as meaningless. Jung decided that he had to assume they made some kind of sense and began to make enquiries, difficult given the forty years that had elapsed since her admission.

He looked again at the yellowing case notes to see the movements described as ‘cobbler’s motions’, the drawing up of threads from shoes held between the knees. When she died shortly afterwards her brother came to the funeral and Jung was able to ask when she had lost her mind. It turned out that as a young woman she had been spurned by a cobbler with whom she’d been in love, a rejection she refused to accept..

”The shoemaker movements indicated an identification with her sweetheart which had lasted until her death.” ibid

Sisyphus’ repetition of his apparently meaningless task has similarly significant antecedants.

He was greedy and deceitful. He killed travellers and guests, a violation of Xenia, the Greek Principle of Relatedness that guarenteed hospitality and protection to strangers. He commited incest with his niece Tyro, another violation of Relatedness. He also betrayed one of Zeus’ secrets for material gain.

The maddening  punishment reserved for Sisyphus was due to his conviction that he was not bound by any laws, not even the laws of Death whose chains he escapes when sent down to Hades..

Zeus poetically enchants the boulder to roll away before Sisyphus reached the top of the hill,  an eternal reminder that we are all constrained by natural laws, just as the rock is constrained by gravity.

One version of the story says he tricks Persephone to let him go back to the land of the living to punish his wife, Merope, for failing to bury him properly and refused to return, living out a second old age before dying again.

The circumstances of Sisyphus’ childhood are unrecorded but we do know he  lived circa 1200 BC just around the time that the Great Mother was being killed off in all the Mediterranean cultures. Her loss changed human values because with Her demise the Principle of Relatedness and the unwritten rules about how to treat one another are also lost and all the things we might learn at the breast about how to be with one another are eroded.

Sisyphus lived on the cusp of two worlds. His ancestors were Pelasgians, who worshipped the Great Mother, a practice ended by his father Aeolus who changed their tribal name to ‘Aeolian’, a now hellenised group who spurned the old ways. So Sisyphus was the first generation separated from the Divine Feminine.

We know that his relationship to his brother Salmoneus is one of murderous hate, the kind of hate that siblings have for one another when there is not enough mummy to go around.

His relationship with the Gods is one of trickery and deceipt. Such values are learned pre-verbally. Like the narcissistic prototype of Gilgamesh and Nebuchadnezzar, he is unmothered, internally divided from his loss, bound only by the limits of egoic desire yet empty and disconnected from the feeling tone of his inner world.

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou.

Sisyphus grandiose posturing, his defiance of both gods and subjects is compensation for his lack of relatedness but it can’t last forever. The repressed always returns in the form of a nasty symptom, some apparently meaningless compulsion. His belief that he can defy the Gods and cheat Death by failing to return to Hades as he promised is an error eternally impressed upon him by having to return to the bottom of the hill over and over again.

His lack of self-restraint is rooted in lack of early containment. The repetition of the daily round and common task that lends security to childhood has to be replaced by a compulsive disorder which will do the containing for him.

”She had a compulsion neurosis because she could not impose moral restraint upon herself. Such people must then have some other form of restraint and along come the compulsive symptoms to serve the purpose.” CG Jung.

Camus concludes,

“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy”.

The Obssessive follows Camus’ advice. Except for his symptom he is happy. He tries to forget his story, buries his secrets bedrock deep, betrays the sob of depth dark longing…

But his happiness is a lie…

for what happiness can there be if there is no Mother, if the premise of existence  has to be that life is absurd and the search for meaning futile?



The Fisherman’s Wife.

A man makes a romantic visit to a beauty spot with a girlfriend. She looks about her and exclaims..

‘It’s beautiful! Why have you never bought me here before?’

There’s no getting it right for such a person.

You might wonder about what makes her tick. You might make observations about the avoidance of intimacy, the refusal of gratitude, the enviously attacked moment of togetherness, the sabotage of aliveness…

and you’d be right..

but none the wiser.

A story that expresses this kind of eternal dissatisfaction is the tale of The Fisherman’s Wife. At first glance it seems like a salutary warning about the dangers of greed and an admonishment to be happy with what you have.

The story goes that the poor and luckless fisherman draws in his tattered net one day to find that he has caught the King of the Fishes who promises to grant him a wish if he sets him free.

The fisherman runs back to his filthy hovel to confer with his wife who says straight away that they should have a new house and in the blink of an eye it is done….

but the wife is…


It could be a bit bigger…

Off goes the fisherman to amend his wish. Even though the Fish King is a bit peeved at this shilly shallying he agrees and when the fisherman gets back the house has become a great mansion.


its just a matter of time before the wife wants a castle…

and a tiara

and a team of unicorns to pull her brand new golden coach…

Each time the fisherman goes back to the fish king the sea is that bit darker, the sky somehow more fierce with cloud tendrils scudded before a lashing wind.

She wants to be Queen…

She wants to be Empress…

She wants to be Supreme Ruler of the Universe..

and have a mountain of calorie free chocolate..

Finally the Fish King’s patience fails..

‘Go back to your filthy hovel!’….

and by the time the fisherman returns all is as it was..

that morning.

Just as history is unkind to the vanquished so too is it difficult to find any sympathy for the fisherman’s wife..

she was a greedy cow and got her just desserts.


Well yes, but what on earth is going on inside her that no amount of wealth and power can fill?

And by the same token, what is going on such that Consumerism in all its fetid glory has come to typify our age? We focus on the shallowness of Western gluttony..

and feel bad about it..

but consumerism and the relentless greed that drives it are not the problem.

The problem is whatever it is that all that stuff is trying to fill..

So you can slag off greedy politicians, avaricious corporations and insatiable nations without it loosening your own grip on the TV remote one iota while you continue to channel hop entire networks devoted to selling you stuff you don’t need.

from the comfort of your armchair..


it would be comfortable if only….

So it may be that…

‘Consumerism is the corruption of the American soul.’ B. Nicholson.

Indeed, much of the literature on Western Consumerism pitches its critique at the level of crumbling social values and greed that is

the pursuit of happiness

by twilight.

We bandy terms like ‘social impact’, and talk about the symptoms of ‘Affluenza’, which is all very interesting…

but no-one is asking what Consumerism is for….

or why the West is stuffing itself like a starvling.

What on earth are we compensating for if our almost religious devotion to posession and accumulation is so great that it gives rise to imbalances of power tantamount to the economic enslavement of entire nations…..?

because you can’t have more than you need without taking bread from the mouths of others…

and, there, now I too am wagging my finger like a schoolmaster,

forgetting the profound levels of inner despair and emptiness, the loss of worth, of self, the hopelessness that leads to such gorging of oneself.

Its so easy to hate the Glutton.

One of the greatest sins at my boarding school in colonial Africa was, ‘uys grazing’. ‘Uys’ is Africaans for ‘by himself’, or ‘alone’.

Eating on your own.

You’d have to plan it. Quickly out of Prep and fly down to the trunk room, a long corridor lined with broad slated shelving for the dozens of black metal trunks stacked nine or ten high. Mine was always on the topmost shelf, not because I had been afforded any priviledge but because my trunk was a gauche, outsize, yellow pigskin affair guarenteed to mark you out on day one as a trouble-maker.

So I’d scamper up there like a spider, way above the glow of the single light bulb on its log flex and lift the heavy lid an inch or two with my elbow whilst pawing about inside for some goody, mentally listing the inventory, checking for theft, bolting down whatever could be found..

heart pounding at the prospect of discovery.

biltong and custard creams..

crisps and chocolate.

Put some in your pocket for later, you can eat them in the toilet.

it looks compulsive, greedy, selfish…

and it is.

just the kind of behaviour you’d expect from boys raised in the absence of women, a continuation of a childhood almost entirely devoid of Mother…

in a culture where the ample lap of the Great Mother is no longer even a dim memory….

where getting properly fed feels like a cross border raid into enemy territory in which you may be ensnared at any time.

So you have to be alert….

and feed yourself..


‘This is our futile attempt to fill a spiritual and emotional emptiness within, to gratify some long-buried need, to heal or at least numb some festering psychological wound. Such self-defeating behaviors are rooted in formerly unmet infantile needs, childhood and adult trauma. S. Diamond.

And so much as we might judge and condemn the fisherman’s wife, do we have the courage to go where she could not? Can we nurse the empty child within who has already decided on the basis of experience that there is not enough to go round?

After all, embracing the inner child is not simply a matter of tears, bandaid and kissing it better. There is also the unresponsive child who wants more than you have and will give nothing back.

‘Do you love life? Then love camp life, for that too is life.” F. Dostoyevsky.

For what would love be if it were not willing to suffer everything..

to find meaning in suffering

or grace in the dirt?

Calling ourselves ‘consumers’ is the newest form of a Freudian prejudice that blames baby for not being able to find the nipple or for crying in response to being un-held.

It also keeps alive the illusion that we have got to the bottom of ourselves by confessing our ‘avarice’, by feeling guilty for feeling empty….

please Sir, can I have some more?

and thus immediately raised back up in pious inauthenticity where we join the call for an end to Greed…

that gaping maw where Mother used to be.