Instinctual Ambivalence and the Heart of Disability

Sigmund Freud     picture of a tornado


Sigmund Freud argued that the human ego develops in reaction to our tendency to bifurcate the world. We see good and evil; love and hatred; Eros and Thanatos and this split drives us into the ego which is mainly concerned with a possessive orientation toward the things we desire.

Say you want love and voila! Your ego works to drive out all that impedes love. You want a whole body and poof!  The ego, that rocking horse winner, does everything possible to drive out images of aging. The ego, it’s safe to say, has an undialectic sense.

I have lived most of my adult life with these ideas. I first read them in the work of the Freudian historian Norman O. Brown, both in his groundbreaking book Life vs. Death and then again in Love’s Body.

Disability troubles the public nerve precisely because it evades the ego’s ambition to create an undialectic image of the body.   



Over the years I’ve grown increasingly mindful that Freud’s map of the psyche has no place for disability. The ego is striving for possession. The id holds out its serpentine and restricted passions. The superego is entirely interested in its neighbors but largely in terms of envy or schadenfreude. Given this, where would disability fit?


Disability lies outside of ambition and beyond our hidden passions. Freud conceived of physical trauma as repression–the province of the id, but the experiences of people with disabilities show this is not true. Disability is nature itself, as far outside the human mind as a pine tree. One thinks of the Japanese Zen Buddhist poet Basho’s famous poem: “Ah! The pine tree! Another thing that will never be my friend!”

Nothing confounds the ego more than nature itself.



Disability is also nature itself. Another way to think of this is that disability is nature introjected or nature swallowed.



Psychoanalysis thinks of the soul as an illusion. Or more precisely it thinks of the soul as a synonym for the self or the psyche. But the soul is something else altogether. The soul is nature swallowed–the soul is the unruly pine tree and the capricious body introjected and the ego knows damned well that there’s nothing it can do about it.



No wonder the ego hates nature and tries to turn it into a golf course.



The only thing the ego fears more than a tornado is a cripple.



People with disabilities who survive, who don’t become embittered alcoholics or addicted to victimized visions tend to live without the ego’s wilful abstractions. I am of the belief that living well with disability means living without literal mindedness.



Another way to say this is that disability when lived rightly is about possessing symbolic intelligence. This in turn means that one understands that just like nature, all things are in transition.



What’s that you say? Yes. No wonder the ego hates us!



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