Monday, November 23, 2009

Revisiting Oedipus

Parthenon from west
It sounds like something off the evening news. Two men get into a fight over the right of way at an intersection, and one ends up dead. Only in this case, the one killed is a local king and the other is offered both the throne and the former queen to be his wife. As is typical in mythic tales, a plague befalls the land, and the new king discovers he's killed his father and married his mother. In response, he blinds himself and his mother commits suicide. The ancient Greeks knew how to write tragedy.

Freud eventually used the myth of Oedipus to describe a developmental process
in which young children yearn to possess the opposite sex parent and eliminate the same sex parent. Admittedly, while not everyone agrees the Oedipus complex is always useful, it does help explain a thing or two.
I mentioned yesterday that one of the things grandfathers do is help their grandsons make the transition from boyhood to healthy manhood. Relationships with grandfathers tend to be more relaxed and exert less pressure to live up to expectations. In other words, grandsons learn how to be patient with, and accepting of, themselves and others. It happens not only in play but in those grandfatherly moments when they tell us the secret lessons they've learned throughout life. In their company we gain the kind of maturity and judgment that helps us avoid fighting over who has the right of way.

Fathers and their fathers who are generative men create optimism and a sense of what is possible. They are encouraging and nurture free and creative self-expression. In their presence we feel more, rather than less, ourselves. Sons who grow up in this atmosphere find resolving Oedipal tension a positive experience because, without even trying, generative men make us wish to be like them.

Women can tell when a man hasn't worked through his Oedipus complex. They may not describe it in those terms, but they know. He may be impatient over trivialities, lack confidence in himself despite acting self-assured, and demonstrate rigid intolerance of what he perceives as the c
haracter flaws in others while ignoring them in himself. The issue isn't a matter of identification with mother as opposed to father; it's the insistence upon remaining a child and an entitled one at that.

Parents who work together to lovingly help their children move past their natural ego centrism accomplish a tremendous thing. They place among us individuals who have the capability to contribute, to make life better, and become role models in their own right. To paraphrase the Charles Schulz character, Pigpen, it kind of makes you want to treat parents with a little more respect.

(Note to the reader: while the subject of this essay is fathers, grandfathers, and sons, the author has known women who, single-handed, have raised some of the finest young men he's ever known. Stereotypes don't apply here.)

(Public domain image of the Parthenon

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