The example of a famous scientist ending up with a fatal accident got me to thinking about what could have caused it. It will be cited at the end of this column, and you may wish see what it is before you read any further. I will try to explain how these things can happen. You can use your own judgment to decide if my explanation makes sense to you. What happened could be described as gallows humor, but it is also quite tragic. Such are the consequences of unconscious guilt.
We are all aware of conscious guilt, when we have done something wrong, something we are not proud of, done something against the rules. Sometimes it is testing limits or pushing the envelope. When we have done something wrong we may wonder if anyone is going to find out, and maybe think less of us or even punish us. Sometimes it's something we did that makes us feel guilty and sometimes it's something we just thought, or it could be an unacceptable feeling, like anger. In the case of anger, the feeling may even be quite natural and justified, but some of us have been taught as a child that feeling anger or thinking angry thoughts is bad, or a sin, in and of itself.
There are everyday things that we could conceivably feel guilty about that would be conscious. We could have pangs of conscience, or even lose sleep about them. We are very aware of guilt feelings that are conscious, but most people don't realize that there can be guilt feelings that are unconscious. Feelings get buried if the conscious thought is painful. We may rationalize the guilt, but that does not mean it goes away. Some people, depending on their hereditary makeup and/or their upbringing, may be walking around with a guilt-complex, even to the point of getting depressed and being chronically worried.
People with unresolved, unconscious guilt may inadvertantly fall prey to unconscious mechanisms of self-punishment. In simple terms, guilt requires punishment, and if there is no external, tangible punishment, which becomes 'justice,' and in extreme cases, paying one's debt to society, we are quite capable of punishing ourselves, without even realizing it. For example a person who has committed an act of petty theft, such as shoplifting, might then lose a piece of jewelry, more valuable than the object stolen.
In mild cases a person might be accident prone, and dent a fender or break a foot. We have heard of people who shoot themselves in the foot, some figuratively, some actually. Certainly not all accidents are unconsciously determined, but many are. More severe cases of guilt may end up with a fatal overdose, which may be considered a tragic accident, or an unconscious suicide. Sometimes people feel so guilty that they feel they do not deserve to live. Some die by reckless driving while drunk, others by bungie-jumping or sky-diving. And others die climbing Mount Everest.
Here's the example I was talking about. It was described in a book review of "Something New Under the Sun" (An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century World) by J.R. McNeill. The review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section of June 25 is by Dick Teresi. He calls this "an entertaining story."
"Thomas Midgley was a chemical engineer who in 1921 figured out that adding lead to gasoline would allow it to burn better. By the 70's most Americans had elevated lead levels in their blood. In 1930-31, Midgley went on to invent Freon, which eats ozone molecules. He eventually contracted polio, and built a system of ropes and pulleys to help him in and out of bed. Midgley, perhaps the most politically-incorrect man of the century, strangled himself in the contraption and died suspended in mid-air."
Interestingly, during a recent expedition to climb Mount Everest, climbers had to pass a frozen body suspended by a cable, a man who died the year before. It is well known that there is a significant mortality rate for Western climbers and Sherpas as well, on this by now well-travelled path. Nevertheless, adventurers, some with young children at home, tempt fate and needlessly risk their lives. Why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it is there?
Could it be unconscious guilt?
Dr Bloom is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University School of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis and on the editorial board of the Wayne County Medical Society. He welcomes comments at his email address--- email@example.com.