The Inhumane Superego

A German Cultural Heritage

I just counted. More than half of my German friends has been in psychotherapy, once or even several times, myself included. Some of these friends tell me, that this actually holds true for everyone in their circle of friends. This, of course, does not have to mean much, or it could mean many different things. To me, though, it appears to be a symptomatic fact. A fact that designates exactly the point at which the history of the twentieth century resides in our bodies.

Seen from the outside we are doing well, often we are even doing very well. We are, or so it is said, successful, we have mastered some challenges, have prevailed in conflicts at work or found something new at the right moment. In so doing, we have found satisfying fields of activity in which we generally earn enough money to live a comfortable life. Mostly, we live in fulfilling relationships to our partners, with or without children, and we tend to have well working social families, friends, for whom we care and on whom we can count.

Most of my friends, who all have a university education, belong to the generation after the baby boom and were born between 1965 and 1975. A generation that a German journalist once called the “generation Golf”. He identified them with the Volkswagen Golf in order to emphasize their consumerism. In a recent high school reunion, however, I did not meet anyone whose way of life could have been reduced to a materialism obsessing about the difference between two brands of cars. To the contrary, shallowness is certainly not our main feature, but rather the very serious will to do everything in life just right.

At the evening of the reunion I met an old schoolmate from whom I had withdrawn quickly after high school graduation. The reason for breaking up our friendship was a postcard he sent to me after we had seen each other at a party. On this postcard he asked me: “Why did you try to present your life as a perfect life when I was talking to you?” I was very upset about this question. I found him horribly egocentric and insensitive, and what did he want from me anyhow? As we talked about this, twenty years later, I suddenly realized that he had not only hit a nerve, but actually hit home with his postcard at the time. To present my life as a perfect life, or better, to be driven by the idea that I have to live a perfect life, indeed belongs to a heritage that is inscribed deeply in my body. After so many years, I finally understood that this friend, to whom I used to feel so superior, always had a decisive advantage over me: serenity and the knowledge not to be able to control everything that would happen in and with his life.

Many stories around me sound very different. There was that fellow student who was so extremely active that she always seemed to be able to accomplish the double amount of what everybody else could. She was admired by many and sometimes a little bit envied. Her positive energy apparently had no limit. Some years later I heard that she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and that this diagnose threw her heavily off the track. It took many months until she could adapt to the new situation mentally and physically. As a result, working long hours without the time to breathe necessarily belonged to the past. Or another friend, a man as good as gold, warm-hearted, always helpful, always friendly, very committed to his study and his political work, cultivating his friendships as the most valuable thing on earth. But he got stuck with his doctoral thesis in a time of crisis. Both his parents died shortly after another and the theme of his dissertation was a heavy moral weight on his shoulders. In the end, he pulled himself up, chose a profession outside academia and nevertheless even finished his dissertation. But there was a time when all of this seemed very uncertain.

Many of my friends and acquaintances in Germany were very ambitious when I met them at the university. Not necessarily ambitious to make a ‘career’ in the conventional sense of the word, or to earn a lot of money, but to ‘do something’ with their lives, something interesting. To do it right, that life thing, to achieve something, produce something meaningful and have a certain success with it. In my generation this rather likable kind of ambition is something which can break you to pieces. Because we take life much too serious. So serious that we forget that we are mere humans. The remorseless way in which we demand the highest accomplishments from ourselves is thoroughly inhumane. We are driven by an inhumane superego. It is a cultural heritage that has a particularly sharp and sometimes destructive edge in Germany.

This inhumane superego seems to strike its most heavy blows on some of the generation’s very best. Unbelievable talents, whose oversized ambition and resulting frustration about insufficient recognition turns their existing sensibility in its cynical and often aggressive opposite. They prefer to make others the victims of their obsessive and fear driven ambition instead of admitting only one crack in the pitch perfect image of their achievement-self. Society often confirms their approach to life by way of success. Others invest all their gifts and energy not only for themselves but even more for others. They are in danger to break down as a result of this strenuous effort if the circumstances are all too resisting. For in the end they are responsible for everything, above all for their failure, which in their eyes already occurs whenever they miss the ideal they are aiming at. And precisely because they feel the burden of responsibility on their shoulders, some of them, quite paradoxically, have the tendency to exclusively blame the evil in the world around them for their disappointments.

In an anthropological article I once read that moving from one place to another causes a nearly similar amount of stress as the death of a loved one. If that is true, it should apply even more to moving abroad. When I moved from Germany to Amsterdam some years ago I thought it was the most natural thing in the world to just ‘soldier on’. I had no clue why I found it so hard during the first months to get out of bed in the morning. Of course I would publish my dissertation, edit an art catalogue, start my life as a postdoc, learn Dutch, get to know the city, get to know the country, get to know the university system, search for an apartment constantly throughout a whole year, move three times in eighteen months, teach in English, commute to Cologne and finally start my first job in the Netherlands and teach in Dutch. What was the big deal? I love foreign languages, I could work in my profession of choice and I had moved to a beautiful and exciting city together with my husband. Plus we are all Europeans and I had already studied in Bordeaux and done research in Paris. Just business as usual. I was only worrying a little bit because I thought I did not publish enough and because I found it difficult to make new friends.

A little while later some American colleagues opened my eyes. Whenever I told my story I saw in their faces, in their compassionate eyes, what I was not able to feel myself, namely how exhausting and difficult all of this is, how much it asks of you. But even today, even right now, in this moment, I hear this voice in my head, that says: “Don’t be a whiny!” And when I talk to my German colleagues, I immediately feel at home with this attitude of minimizing my own vulnerability. These things are no big deal for them, either. Exhausting, sure, but necessary and somehow a normal part of the life we have chosen. If it happens all the same that somebody does not come to terms with it, we are completely helpless. Quickly the thought creeps in that she or he apparently did not have what it takes, simply was not tough enough. And in the end everything is always also about being tough, or so they say.

There has been much talk about burnout. Burnout is known to be a phenomenon that exists in many countries. Why then should we think about national features? Is it not caused by the neoliberal boost to our achievement-driven societies? That is indeed very probable, but it seems to me that it does not completely grasp the phenomenon. In the way this problem occurs in Germany, something is interwoven that shapes our culture in a very specific way. It is a lack of empathy, with ourselves and thereby very often also with others. In my home country this lack is so natural that we can barely notice it.

After having published a book about her burnout, the media scholar Miriam Meckel was asked on a German radio program about the reasons why it had been so difficult for her to find a balance between work and rest; why she had the disposition to work excessively up to the point of total exhaustion. She answered that this had to do with her parents, with the generation to which they belonged, with the model that they had lived. I recognize myself and many of my friends in this remark. Our parents’ way of life was often based on work and achievement and the absolute duty to always do the right thing, without a break, without rest, without restriction, I am even inclined to say: without mercy. This way of life is not designed to hold a place for treating yourself humanely. Treating yourself humanely would mean to acknowledge, even to welcome, one’s own fallibility and weakness, and thereby also the weakness of others, as a part of our humanity. For this is precisely what makes us human. Many people in Germany (but surely not only there) have a panic fear of this insight, reinforced by an unforgiving logic of achievement which has been fueled further during the past twenty years of neoliberal politics.

But we cannot develop a culture of empathy if we are that much afraid of what has piled up inside of us. We have inherited the biggest part of it from our parents, and they have inherited it from our grandparents. This part of us belongs to the history of the twentieth century. It is a cultural heritage, that drives us to the highest achievements and that, at the same time, threatens to engulf us in the abyss.

(Written in Konstanz, Germany, February 2012)