In life we come across problems. These problems can range from the physical (headaches, bad back, a little more around the midriff than we’d ideally like) to mental or the emotional (depression, anger, shouting at your partner).
We want to solve these problems, and we often spend much of our life worrying about them or expend a lot of energy in trying to solve them. We do this in the hope that if we solve these problems, we’ll be happy. This is great. We have evolved to be problem solvers and our desire and ability to do this is what makes us human.
Sometimes, though, the problems that we think are our problems may actually be symptoms. Taking the headache or bad back for example, perhaps this is due to the long hours spent at the office staring at the computer screen. Or if you’re overweight, this could be a symptom of an inactive lifestyle and you’ve forgotten that your body is designed to move. Perhaps it points to a deeper mental issue and you’re punishing yourself by eating junk because you think you’re deserving of punishment.
Or when you shout at your partner. Maybe they did something that really hurt you or made you angry. Or perhaps you shouted at your partner because you want to shout at your boss, but you can’t do that so it spills out onto your partner instead.
Peter Rollins describes symptoms as when a truth that you cannot speak speaks up for you. He draws on the work of the French psychoanalyst Lacan, who writes the French word “symptôme” as Sinthome, which is spoken “saint homme” — a holy man. A prophet. Rollins suggests that when you listen to your symptoms, they can become your holy man in which you find your truth.
When you listen to your headache or bad back, and really listen, it can point out your unhealthy lifestyle or work environment. When you listen to your shouting at your partner, it can point to the unhealthy relationship with your boss. When you listen to your fatigue, it can point to that unhealthy relationship which is draining your energy. By letting your symptoms speak to you rather than jumping to suppress them with pain killers, pushing down your anger or vitamins, you can address that unspeakable truth. And by addressing that unspeakable truth, get closer to finding and living your Truth.
You might hate your job and can’t stand the people you work with, who you consider part of the “system”. You get angry and frustrated that your colleagues are just living without thinking and because you don’t understand why they don’t seek for a more meaningful way of existence. So you go and seek out a different team to join or a new company to work for, hoping that in your new environment you’ll finally be fulfilled and content.
But maybe this is actually a symptom and, although there may be truth in your thinking that your colleagues and your company isn’t right for you, maybe there’s a part of this situation that an unspeakable truth within you is speaking for you. Just maybe you are actually frustrated that you aren’t sure of what your life is about…who you are. So you take that part of you which you hate, and project that out onto others who you see that very same characteristic in, especially when they aren’t grappling with it like you are.
Now, addressing symptoms is easy (despite its ultimate futility). Looking at the unspeakable truth that the symptoms point to, now that’s really hard. It’s messy. It’s complex. It’s painful. But recognising that it’s there and naming it reduces how much control you let the symptoms have on your life.
Following your holy man, that’s even harder. It may be something you grapple with your entire life. But what’s the alternative — to take the painkillers so that you can numb the symptoms until the final day of respite comes? Or stand up and fight and truly live?
What are the problems you’re grappling with right now?
Are they genuine problems or (and/or) could they be symptoms?
What unspeakable truth is speaking through these symptoms?
What would it look like to address this unspeakable truth in your life in the next week?
Credit goes to Peter Rollins who, influenced by and elaborating on the psychoanalyst Lacan, speaks extensively and knowledgeably on this topic.