I want to start with a quote from Thomas Merton’s essay Prometheus: A Meditation. “The fire Prometheus thought he had to steal from the gods was his own spiritual freedom. In the eyes of Prometheus to be himself was to be guilty. the exercise of liberty was a crime, an attack upon the gods which he had made (the gods to whom he had given all that was good in himself, so that in order to have all that he had, it was necessary to steal it back from them).” The cost that Prometheus paid for this theft was to be chained to a rock and have his liver eaten every day by a vulture. And each day the liver was renewed and each day it was destroyed.
The liver has a number of functions including combatting infection, neutralising toxins,breaking down food and turning it into energy. Things that are essential to survival and which it does automatically. This stands as a useful metaphor for psychic functions. a healthy psyche is able to fight of infections, rid the body of toxins and food into energy. And in the same way that a damaged physical liver leaves the patient at risk, the same holds true in the psychological realm. Patients with psychic damage are unable to turn food into nourishment, have a greater susceptibility to infection and are less able to process toxic material safely.
The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein talked about the baby taking in the mother’s breast -as well as her milk- as a symbol of good care- a good breast. This breast then becomes the basis for self love, self care, the ability to form loving relationships with people and the ability to rereate these things in other people. Kelin also wrote about the consequences of the baby taking in a bad breast. One which withheld love, care, nurture etc. For these people self love, self care, self worth became gifts that had to be stolen in anger, despair, envy and rage. And this theft was always punished by their god. And a god whom , as Merton points out, they have created- or chosen-specifically to punish them. Thus women choose partners who will humiliate them, control them and demean them. The woman replies by having affairs which become known to their husband, who punishes them the more. And so are created new Prometheus’.
Or men choose partners whom they fear will leave them. And these men get drunk, have casual sex, have affairs to ward off the fear of abandonment. Sometimes their wife knows about this behaviour, sometimes she does not. The result becomes a marraige that is hollow and empty, lacking in any intimacy or sharing. Each partner feels as tied to their rock as Prometheus and each one suffers.
It is one of the many functions of counselling to help my patients to see what it is they are doing by their behaviour. (Actually there is isually a prior task, which is to point out that they are “doing something”. That they are behaving in a certain way and that there may well be good reasons behind their behaviour). The men who have affairs, the women who stay with abusive partners are both punishing someone for past hurts. And are themselves punished for their current behaviour- which gives rise to more abuse, more affairs and on and on. Daily their livers are eaten.
The hope is that in the counselling relationship these revenge attacks can be talked about and understood. That with understanding can come forgiveness, healing and growth. Merton finishes his meditiation with htese lines
“If Christ has died and risen from the dead… why do we imagine that our desire for life is a Prometehan desire, doomed to punishment?
Why do we act as if our longing to ‘ see good days’ were something God did not desire…
Why do we reproach ourselves for desiring victory? Why do we pride ourselves on our defeats, and glory in despair?
Because we think our life is important to ourselves alone, and do not know that our life is more important to the Living God than it is to our own selves?”
We might want to interpret Merton’s religious language into our own terms. “God” and “Christ” representing figures that can bring us wholeness- the Kleinian breast. A “successful” counselling outcome is not that my patient never has a bad day again. Nor that they never get sad or miserable again. But that they learn that these things will pass. That they do not have to streal to get fire and that they do not have to end up chained to a rock for the rest of their lives.