Thinking about ambivalence – balancing strong feelings
Being human is about having a range of emotions and feelings along a continuum from love to hate. Being alive is when we know about these feelings and can find a way of integrating them. The injunction in Matthew 5: 48 – ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ can therefore cause much confusion. The word ‘perfect’ carries a lot of difficult associations and seems far from what we know about our experience of realistically being in the world. Some have advocated a different translation and suggested using the word ‘whole’ or the literal translation which means ‘be complete.’ This seems to offer a way in which psychological awareness can be included in spiritual awareness and a way in which our humanity can be honoured rather than repressed or denied.
The statement in Matthew follows the suggestion that we love our enemies and I think that before we love our enemies we have to firstly acknowledge our hatred of them. Jesus’ suggests that we pray for those who persecute us – our enemies. I think the prayer that he is suggesting is a form of integration of our projections. It is of course projection of hatred that causes wars, murder, abuse and cruelty so as Carl Jung so wisely said the best thing we can do with our lives is acknowledge our projections. Denying negative feelings merely means that such feelings emerge in a different way, through projections or through strange and disassociated actions or words. If we are being hurt or persecuted by others or think we are then it is inevitable that we will hate them. D. W. Winnicott in his important paper ‘Hate in the Counter transference’ understood that it was essential that the mother allowed herself to have feelings of hatred towards the baby who demanded so much from her without doing anything about it. He writes: The most remarkable thing about a mother [and a father too presumably] is her ability to be hurt so much by her baby and to hate so much without paying the child out, and her ability to wait for rewards that may or may not come at a later date.’ He suggests that in part the hate is contained by nursery rhymes and play that include ideas of hurting the baby:
Rockabye Baby, on the tree top
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
Down will come baby, cradle and all…
For Winnicott this is not a sentimental rhyme and anyway sentimentality is useless for parents as it is a denial of hatred and in the same way useless for the infant who needs hate to hate so as to be able to accept his or her own feelings and be truly alive.
In the same way if our religion and spiritual life is sentimental it cannot be real and so this suggests that strong feelings cannot be tolerated or allowed. For whether we like it or not we are going to feel hatred no matter how unseemly or nasty that feels. The challenge that Jesus’ offers us is how to get to a place where that can be understood, experienced and so managed and integrated. In other words by knowing that part of ourselves we become complete and are less likely to act this out against others whether our enemies or not.