A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Maybe They Were Supposed to Eat the Apple

Accepting suffering as an ordinary part of life

Most of us know the Garden of Eden story. Nearly every religious tradition has such a story, and it can be found in the mythology of ancient civilization that was around long before the Jewish and Christian scriptures which we have today. The story is an attempt to answer the question that people have asked since the beginning of time. Why is the world so mucked up?

In the story, the world is conceived as an idyllic place that got ruined because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, giving in to the Serpent’s propaganda that they could become gods themselves if only they ate the forbidden apple. Disobedience, greed, and envy are seen as the root of all evil. The bite becomes the beginning of the end—and the end is suffering.

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But what if we do what psychoanalysts try to do—take the moral judgment out of the story (right vs. wrong, good vs. evil) and just try to understand what is going on in the story itself? Now I know my theology-minded readers may feel a heart attack coming on, but take deep breaths and keep an open mind. Maybe with a fresh approach we can find some new insights in an old, old story.

What if we think of the story as the effort of ordinary people to understand the complexities of life in which suffering is a regular part of our experience? It is difficult to accept the reality of suffering. We all fight it. We wish life were perfect—that there would be no pain, no sickness, no dying. So we imagine that there was once a perfect place—called Eden—and we long to find our way to a perfect place—called Heaven. And we’re not sure what to make of the In-Between.

I think the Buddhists have an advantage when it comes to thinking about the In-Between. Their starting point is the acceptance that suffering is a part of life. The question is not whether we suffer—that is a given. The question is what to do about it—that is to try to evolve and develop, to make good out of the imperfect life that we have been given. The Buddhists see life as an opportunity.

Most of us suffer more than we have to. We suffer needlessly because we take as a starting point the idea that life is supposed to be perfect. With this picture in mind, we suffer under the feeling that we have either mucked things up ourselves or we have been handed a mucked up mess that we can’t do anything about, no matter how hard we try. Life, then, is felt to be a big disappointment rather than a big opportunity.

It is a matter of perspective. I often tell the story, passed on to me by one of my mentors, of a little girl who was given a pony for her birthday. Her first response was, “Oh, how dreadful! Who’s going to clean up all the shit?” Then there was another girl who was given a pile of shit for her birthday and said, “Oh, how wonderful! Where is the pony?”

We do well when we can take the good with the bad in life. We cannot be human without both. We cannot grow without both. We cannot have love without both. And if there is a God who designed this world of ours, then God would not be much of a God without both. I do believe that there is a kind of wise design in this world of ours. Just as there cannot be an up without a down, there cannot be a good without a bad, there cannot be love without hate, there cannot be generosity without selfishness, there cannot be obedience without choice.

Life has meaning and richness because of this dimensionality, this yin-and-yang, this independence of mind that makes choosing so challenging and so delicious. While we long for perfection, I think we also secretly appreciate the imperfections. As country-western singer Kenny Chesney croons, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, get their wings and fly around. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.”

That tempting tree right smack in the middle of our Garden is a symbol for one juicy apple called life. We must be careful and disciplined about all of this freedom we have been given, for recklessness leads to greed and envy that can be so destructive. But used wisely and lovingly, our freedom to choose can lead to a life In-Between which we can enjoy right now.

Copyright 2013 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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