The Real Oedipus Complex


In the ancient Greek story Oedipus is told that he will kill his father and marry his mother. Horrified, he runs away in an attempt to escape this fate, only succeeding in running towards it. Without realising it, he ends up killing his father and marrying his mother, just as had been prophesied. Whatever Oedipus did he couldn’t escape his fate. That is the real moral of the Oedipus tragedy and trying to avoid your fate strikes me as being a much more interesting ‘complex’ than the largely imaginary one of fancying your mum.

Personally I don’t believe in fate. However, I do believe that there is a kind of logic behind everything we do. Given the genes I have and the environment I grew up in I was probably bound to be sitting here typing this. Nothing about my life was pre-ordained or inevitable but there was a certain logic behind every step I took. Each step was like a falling domino that proceeded to knock the next one down.

Like Oedipus, I sometimes try hard to control my future. I think things through several times and rehearse them in my mind before doing them. It’s like a chess player thinking out his moves. However, in chess there are only a handful of moves you can make while in life there are an infinite number and every new moment throws up different ones.

Sometimes thinking things through does you no good. You could meet the love of your life after turning down a wrong street. In this case an apparently bad decision turns into a good one. And vice versa. As some historian once said when asked what the consequences of the French Revolution were, ‘It’s too early to say’. In a way it is always too early to say if anything is ultimately for the good. It therefore makes little sense to spend too much time and energy trying to guide your future. There are just too many spanners waiting to fall into your beautifully planned works and too many spanners that by a happy accident turn your mistakes into successes.

Even so, I suppose that on average it is still better to at least try to guide your life rather than leaving everything to random chance. It’s just that there are limits to the control you have.

The scientist and meditator Susan Blackmore says that she no longer makes conscious decisions. Somehow she finds herself doing things even though she didn’t consciously decide to do them. Her body, or the situation, decided for her. Of course this happens to all of us every day. We go on autopilot and our body evidently has a mind of its own. After all, it isn’t you that is making your heart beat and producing white blood cells. It’s your body.

And if you observe yourself for a while you will soon notice that almost none of your actions are initiated or even carried out by ‘you’. Something below your consciousness is running the whole thing. Some people claim that even when you seem to be making a decision, this is really just a rare occasion of your body letting you know what it has already decided to do.

I think what Susan Blackmore means by ‘not making decisions’ is that she no longer forces things. Her unconscious self has a logic all of its own and left to its own devices will generally make good decisions. Had Oedipus not been so keen to consciously direct his fate he might not have ended up killing his father and marrying his mother. And although just letting things happen doesn’t guarantee you will always make the right decision, becoming a micro-manager of your fate does guarantee that your life will resemble a very long and arduous obstacle course.

Anyway, for me this aspect of the Oedipus story is much more illuminating than the fact that he slept with his mother. The ‘Oedipus Complex’ should really refer to a futile attempt to micro-manage your future. Rather than worrying and running like a headless chicken into the arms of disaster Oedipus should simply have stayed where he was and gently sung ‘Que sera sera’ to himself (assuming he knew both Ancient Greek and Spanish).

Four years later

After re-reading what I wrote four years ago I no longer agree with it. Yes, micro-managing your life is probably a bad idea but fatalism is at least as bad. Poor Oedipus wasn’t micro-managing anything but just acting in a way that even his unconscious body would have agreed with – if it had been conscious and capable of agreeing. Still, rather than delete the post I’ll let it stand as a reminder to myself of how often in the past I’ve been wrong – or at least changed my mind.


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