The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Tidy. Plan. Organize. These are the principles of the industrious and efficient life.

Little room left, in this high-pressure success-oriented world of ours, for mess. Or the bewilderment that trails around it.

For the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, feeling muddled lies at the heart of the therapeutic relationship. Mess brings people into analysis, he writes. Hoping to make sense of their destructive relationship patterns or hard-to-explain cravings, some of his patients desire above all that he will bring clarity to their minds, decluttering and reorganizing, sweeping away the cobwebs until it is pristine again. It’s no surprise, this urge for tidiness. From a messy desk to the refusal to keep a diary, disorganization is sometimes presented as stubborn and self-defeating: a subconscious desire to frustrate ourselves, preventing us from pursuing our goals or achieving the success we crave.

But mess is not always an obstacle. Sometimes it can be useful. Most of us at one time or another will have discovered something of value while searching for a tedious invoice in a messy in-tray. When we root through the jumble of our minds, we might similarly find ideas we weren’t looking for, or make connections between things we didn’t realize were linked. For Phillips, in the end it’s the clutter that is the most interesting thing about the psychoanalytic process. Above all, he is curious about the way we deliberately—albeit subconsciously—create these conditions of mess and bewilderment, tangling up our relationships or leaving chaos behind us at work, because we want to discover something new.

Among the great lost souls of literature, King Lear is perhaps one of the most vivid examples of creative disorientation. The forgetful old man moodily casts himself out onto the storm-blown heath. Confused about his identity, feeling rejected by his children and lost in the wild lands outside the castle gates, he becomes bewildered in both senses of the word. His confusion is at the heart of a feverish process of remaking himself, the feeling that makes it possible for him to ask the question that pulses through the play: “Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

We all, from time to time, find ourselves exasperated by clutter, deafened by babble and frightened by confusion. Mess is not easy to tolerate. But the confusions that force us to ask, “Who am I?” or “What does it mean?” are valuable. As we search through the jumble of possible answers, we may just turn up some idea, or image, or belief that suddenly helps things make sense.

“Anything that stops something happening is making something else possible,” writes Phillips. It is reminiscent of the old homily: lose something, and you might stumble on something far better while looking for it.