The Psychoanalytic Meaning of Being "Born Again": A Freudian Perspective

The Psychoanalytic Meaning of Being "Born Again":
A Freudian Perspective


Edward C. Paolella


(April Fool's Day 2006)

Apostles' Creed

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:

3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:

4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried:


5. The third day he rose again from the dead:

6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God

the Father Almighty:

7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:

8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:

9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:

10. The forgiveness of sins:

11. The resurrection of the body:

12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

Included in the Apostles' Creed is the belief that Jesus descended into hell before ascending on the third day into heaven. According to certain Christian traditions, he supposedly took Moses, David, Solomon, and all the Jewish Prophets with him to heaven. Psychologically speaking, the point is that before we are able to attain "paradise" or "liberation"–that is, psychological health and creative freedom--"ascending into heaven"--we must first make the descent into the deepest, the most frightening part of ourselves, our unconscious--"hell." The purpose of the "descent into hell" is necessary to make the unconscious conscious so as to learn of, as many as possible, THE MOST SIGNIFICANT TRUTHS ABOUT OURSELVES--good, bad, or indifferent--accept them, and deal with them in an as mature and as rational a manner as possible so as to be freed from our neurotic behaviors, that is, to be freed from our unnecessary suffering.

As one female patient in psychoanalysis put it in Jerry Adler’s Newsweek article "Freud in Our Midst": "I decided I have a good life, but it could be better....[Psychoanalysis] makes you examine your life, retell your life, to understand where your attitudes, your beliefs and behaviors come from....I'm so much happier now. It's not something I could do alone. You have to confront the parts of yourself that are painful and shameful and difficult to face. Dr. Moritz [her psychoanalyst] asks the questions that cause me to dig deeper into myself" (March 26, 2006, p. 46).

The problem is that very few of us are willing to make the "descent"--to bring the unconscious desires into consciousness--so as to learn what caused our neuroses in the first place, neuroses that determine our conscious choices, and with the aid of adult reason and with being in touch with our current reality do what we have to to heal ourselves. In doing so, we learn to cut our neurotic ties from the past that have been governing our behavior ever since the desires emanating from the id were repressed in the first place during childhood. Our repressed desires, or the impulses to satisfy all our desires, however self-contradictory they may be, CREATED our damaged self-images or beleaguered ego with the help of the work of the super-ego, that is, the internalized system of values of right and wrong, good and evil, that act as judge, jury, and executioner that are the basis for our low self-esteem and the sabotaging of our own happiness.

Instead, we repeat the same neurotic patterns over and over again with our unconscious repressed feelings controlling our conscious choices. The question is: why do we continue to act self-destructively in spite of the fact that our rational, conscious minds are often even aware of our self-destructive behaviors, but not aware of their unconscious motivations? The answer is that we only have the illusion of being free based upon what our conscious minds tell us about ourselves without realizing or accepting that it is our repressed unconscious desires that determine our conscious choices based upon repressed childhood feelings of shame and guilt. Those unconscious feelings of childhood of shame and guilt that we carry around with us inside our heads are the bases for the religious concept of "sin."

All three Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--are founded upon the notion that we are all "sinners" incapable of redeeming ourselves. Hence, we get such theological ideas as "The Fall of Man," "Original Sin," and such remarks, as in the Book of Isaiah that "our righteousness is but as filthy rages before God," and in the Gospels that our "salvation comes only through the death and resurrection" of Jesus the Christ, whose crucifixion was necessary to "cleanse" all of us who "believe on Him" from our sins. Or as the opening lines of the hymn "Amazing Grace" expresses the concept of the unforgiving, unrelenting super-ego:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

The word "wretch," one of the oldest and the ugliest words in the English language, with an equally ugly meaning, is derived from the Old English verb wrecan, meaning "to drive, drive out," and in turn form the Old English noun wrecca, meaning "outcast, exile, fugitive," and "a base, despicable, or vile person."

Jesus is correct, psychologically speaking, that is it only "the truth that sets us free," but not "the truth" that Jesus is "The Truth" and that to be saved we must believe in Him, but rather that "the truth" that we learn about ourselves in bringing the unconscious repressed feelings of shame and guilt into consciousness and in liberating ourselves from such repressed shame and guilt that we become free to dispel what others originally predetermined for us was shameful and worthy of guilty feelings and of the punishment we must suffer for our shame and guilt.
In religious terms that is the idea of the Fall and God as Everlasting Judge who punishes us for our sins and, whom Jesus, "sitteth at the right hand of the Father," in the "last days" will "judge the living and the dead" to determine who will go to heaven to live in bliss with and in God and who to hell to suffer punishment, for all eternity, at the hands of Satan, the former Lucifer, the "Angel of Light," now turned the "Prince of Darkness."

Jesus' notion that "the truth will set you free" existed long before he did. In ancient Greek religion, what ignorant "religious" moderns condescendingly call Greek "mythology," not the religion of the ancient Greeks to be found expressed in Homer and other ancient writers, especially the ancient tragedians, but at worst legendary, fictional untruths, and at best allegorical spiritual and psychological truths, but certainly not as sacred or "Holy Scriptures," in the modern sense, to the ancient Greeks and later the ancient Romans in their variations on the Greek Homeric tradition in the writings of Vergil and Ovid and Seneca as the equal of the divinely inspired writings whether the TANAKH for the Jews, the New Testament for the Christians, the Qur'an for the Muslims, and the various other scriptures for the Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, BahB'ís, and so on of all the other world's sacred religious writings.

Among the ancient Greeks the idea that "the truth will set you free" is expressed as the religious principle of "Know Thyself," espoused in the Greek temples of worship, especially in the city-state of Athens and in the Temple at Delphi dedicated to the God Apollo, the God of the sun, medicine, and poetry. Athens is named for Athena, the virgin Goddess of Wisdom, the daughter of the Father of the Olympian Gods Zeus, born full-grown from his head (just one example of Zeus, a male god, giving birth to children, as Jesus, the Creator-God aspect of the Father God of the Trinity, was also a male who "begot" everything and everyone in the universe, including his own mother the Virgin Mary, for it was through Jesus "that all things were made").

Athena is the daughter of Zeus. She sprang full grown in armour from his forehead and thus has no mother. She is fierce and brave in battle in wars defend the state and home from outside enemies. She is the Goddess of the city, handicrafts, and agriculture. She invented the bridle, which permitted man to tame horses, the trumpet, the flute, the pot, the rake, the plow, the yoke, the ship, and the chariot. She is the embodiment of wisdom, reason, and purity. She was Zeus's favorite child and was allowed to use his weapons including his thunderbolt. Her favorite city is Athens. Her tree is the olive. The owl is her bird. She is an ever-virgin Goddess as, according to Roman Catholic dogma, Mary, the mother of Jesus, the Son of God, is the Ever-Virgin Mary, conceived immaculately, that is, without the taint of "original sin," for how could Jesus, God Incarnate, be born of a woman stained with sin?

In his "First Lecture" to his work A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, Freud himself says, in so many words, that self-knowledge, the essence of wisdom, springs from our own heads as did Athena, the Virgin Goddess of Wisdom, did from Zeus' own head:

"...[H]ow is it possible to study it [psychoanalysis] at all or to convince oneself of its truth? The study of it is indeed not an easy matter, nor are there many people who have thoroughly learned it; still, there is, of course, some way of learning it. Psychoanalysis is learned first of all on oneself, through the study of one's own personality [emphasis mine]. This is not exactly what is meant by introspection, but it may be so described for want of a better word. There is a whole series of very common and well-known mental phenomena which can be taken as material for self-analysis when one has acquired some knowledge of the method. In this way one may obtain the required conviction of the reality of its conceptions, although progress on these lines is not without its limitations. One gets much further by submitting oneself to analysis by a skilled analyst, undergoing the working of the analysis in one's own person and using the opportunity to observe the finer details of the technique which the analyst employs (Joan Riviere, tr., New York: Perma Books, 1953, pp. 23-24).

The point of taking this round-about journey is to show the fantastic connections in thought between the insights of the ancient Greeks, Jews, Christians, and Freud (an atheist) about the nature of the human mind, how it works, how we are frightened by the necessary descent into our own unconscious minds ("hell) in order to "ascend" into "heaven" or into higher consciousness freed from the unconscious childhood feelings of shame and guilt that keep us from truly knowing ourselves and from deriving deeper enjoyment of our lives and the best possible uses of our creative talents.

Before the common era, what the Buddha in ancient India in the 6th century and Socrates in the 5th century in ancient Greece experienced and taught their disciples--Socrates remarking that "the unexamined life is not worth living" in Plato's The Trial of Socrates--is that years of deeply painful "introspection" are necessary so as to attain the state of "Nirvana" or "Rebirth" or "Enlightenment" (that is, revelation of the self experienced from within the mind) devoid of neurotic suffering, being freed from the so-called "endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth" and freedom from repetitious compulsive neurotic behavior. In his paper "Formations regarding the Two Principles in Mental Function" (1911), as Freud notes, "We have long observed that every neurosis has the result, and therefore probably the purpose, of forcing the patient out of real life, of alienating him from actuality....The neurotic turns away from reality because he finds it unbearable–either in whole or parts of it." The neurotic’s "alienation from reality" has as its aim "denying the existence of the particular event that occasioned the outbreak..." (Collected Papers, V. 4, tr. Joan Riviere, London: 1953, p. 13).

Every "truly realized" master thinker, philosopher, musician, artist, sculptor, teacher, and any other deeply introspective human being, whether literate or illiterate, remembered or forgotten by history, having attained true self-knowledge grows in compassion, understanding, and love of self and others, but not without each individual knowing "hell" before experiencing "heaven" on earth--to whatever degree it is possible for each one of us to accomplish such a rebirth who is willing to make the journey that Dante describes in his epic trilogy of the "Inferno," "Purgatorio'" and "Paradiso," all three parts of which he named La Comedia and his readers soon after his death, The Divine Comedy. For as Shakespeare puts it, a "comedy" is, after all, "all's well that ends well"!

The goal of psychoanalysis, Freud points out time and again, is the uncovering and resolution of the patient's internal conflicts so as to have the "old" neurotic suffering self ("ich") die and the "new" healthy self ("ich") be born based, not upon fantasies and wishes--the "pleasure principle"--but upon being in touch with reality, past and present, and making conscious decisions based upon the "reality principle" so as to diminish human suffering as much as the human condition and reality will allow.From a Freudian psychoanalytic perspective, such is the true meaning of being born once of the flesh and then again of the "spirit." The word Freud (an atheist) uses is "Seele," to mean a human being's innermost being, what in Greek is "psyche" and in Latin "animus" and in English "soul," but carrying no transcendental or "other-worldly" significance whatsoever.

For Freud, to be "born again" was to be as free from neurotic behavior and its attendant suffering as humanly possible through a discovery of and a being in touch with the reality of one's own inner-most being on a conscious level to make choices on the basis of the individual's own reality.As Freud used the terms, the Ego (das Ich) is the mediator between the impulsive-compulsive demands of the Id (das Es) and the tyrannical threats and judgments of the Superego (das Überich). The Ego is only free to choose what is in its own best interest when it is consciously aware that to surrender to either the chaotic and contradictory wishes of the Id or the Kafkaesque policing and prosecutorial nature of the Superego is to cave into the forces of the unbridled indulgence of desire and the unrelenting punishment of blood-stabbing guilt and biting remorse.

To be "born again," to be truly free, is to "know thyself" and to make choices on the basis of the reality principle of our present circumstances--not out of irrational compulsive impulses and beseiging guilt--but out of enlightened self-interest. It is neither a "God" nor a "Holy Spirit" who causes us to be "born again" and set free, but we ourselves through the difficult and painful, but courageous "descent into hell" as the essential part of the journey toward self-revelation and self-actualization: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings" (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, I:2:134).

In his New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933), Freud expresses what is meant psychoanalytically by being "born again"--being freed from the chaotic compulsive impulses of the id and the knife-stabbing guilt and back-biting remorse of the superego, or in Freud's own words: "Where id was, there shall ego be" (Wo Es war, soll Ich werden, literally "Where it was, I shall come to be").

Set free from the unrelenting repressed drives of the id and the threating judgments and punishments of the superego, the ego mediates between these two powerful psychic forces based, not upon either the "pleasure principle" or the tyranny of deeply ingrained, impossible-to-live-by standards of religious, sexual, and moral perfection, but by the "reality principle" based upon self-knowledge and the realities of the present now guided by adult reasoning abilities and healthy defense mechanisms.

Now the ego, self-empowered and in touch with its own creative and intuitive talents and perceptions, has an enhanced ability to make choices out of enlightened self-interest no longer dictated by repressed inscrutible psycho-sexual and aggressive instincts and unyielding threats of self-recrimination and "self-bashing" and acquired self-destructive patterns of behavior, but by the prevailing power of rational thinking and of decision-making that take into account the whole human being: the emotions, the values, and the needs of the individual's ever-changing internal realities and the ever-changing vicissitudes of the external world.Thus human begins become the masters of their own constantly evolving individual destinies created within the parameters to which all human beings are subject--those of the human condition and the laws of nature. Being so psychologically "born again," that is, psychologically aware and empowered, does not free the individual from suffering--for Freud, like the Buddha, argues that life is suffering.

As Mark Edmundson of the Department of English at the University of Virginia so illuminatingly reveals in his essay "Freud and the Fundamentalist Urge," on the 150th anniversary of Freud’s birth:

At the center of Freud's work lies a fundamental perception: human beings are
not generally unified creatures. Our psyches are not whole, but divided into
parts, and those parts are usually in conflict with one another [much of the
source of our psychological suffering]. The id, or the 'it,' is an agent of pure
desire: it wants and wants and does not readily take no for an answer. The
superego, or over-I, is the internal agent of authority. It often looks harshly
upon the id and its manifold wants. The superego, in fact, frequently punishes
the self simply for wishing for forbidden things, even if the self does not act
on those wishes at all. Then there is the ego, trying to broker between the it
and the over-I, and doing so with the greatest of difficulty, in part because
both agencies tend to operate outside the circle of the ego's awareness. The
over I and the it often function unconsciously. Add to this problem the fact
that 'the poor ego,' as Freud often calls it, must navigate a frequently hostile
outside world, and it is easy to see how, for Freud, life is best defined as
ongoing conflict" (New York Times Magazine, April 30, 2006, p. 16).

But our lives need not be just about suffering. Set free psychologically, each human being has the potential to experience periods of heightened awareness, creative living, and contented fulfillment. The individual's psychologically enlightened self gives each healthily raised child, each woman, and each man the "unalienable Rights [but not guarantees]...to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" (Thomas Jefferson, "The Declaration of Independence").

To be "endowed" by ONE'S OWN TRUE SELF with such "certain unalienable Rights" is, psychoanalytically speaking, to be "born again" to make enlightened choices, and to make enlightened choices is, by psychoanalytic definition, to be as free as it is humanly possible to be free psychologically.

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