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In psychoanalysis, reaction formation is "the tendency of a repressed wish or feeling to be expressed at a conscious level in a contrasting form." It is a defense mechanism whereby an individual copes with unacceptable emotions and impulses, themselves anxiety-provoking, through the exaggeration of the opposite tendency. We've all met the seemingly free-spirited voluptuary who behind closed doors is actually a total prude. In contrast, the librarian look-alike turns out to be the closet freak. And once you get to know the stern disciplinarian you find his gruff demeanor to be a well-worn facade: he is really a softy inside. Love you, Dad.

Phobias, or irrational fears, represent another  type of reaction formation. You can be said to want what you fear. Like creepy crawly spiders, for instance, which are so beguiling. Indeed the person who is deathly afraid of drowning exhibits deep down inside a curious fascination for water, itself the stuff of life. And one wonders what it would be like to be trapped beneath its limpid surface with no means of egress. What would it feel like as the lungs filled with liquid and the most basic of all needs, to breathe, was barred forevermore? Would the silent seconds spent helpless and completely alone seem like eternities? What terrible thoughts might race through the mind in this time of ineffable desperation? Such utter helplessness! Maybe it's just me. After all one of my favorite songs is that one by Ephraim Lewis.

Even if you are not such a masochist yourself, you surely recognize that fear and its opposite, desire, are two ways of attracting an object to you. So be careful what you wish for, and also what you dread. Or better yet, fear not. Because who, when standing atop a building staring down from that lofty perch at the almost invisible pavement far below, isn't visited by the curious urge to fly? Maybe that's what we all seek. Flight. Why we all dream of it. And why most desires and fears are rooted in the desire to escape (from ourselves, from life). In a fitting twist, the singer of "Drowning in your Eyes" jumped to his death from a fourth floor balcony.

Speaking of life, as in its stuff (food). I've been in the nutrition racket long enough to recognize this defense mechanism at work. I'm talking about the feud between the two mutually exclusive camps, Paleo eaters and and vegan enthusiasts. Each believes that his approach is the ONLY nutritional strategy to "help you stay lean, strong and energetic," as one website puts it. The former camp advocates a flesh-filled diet while the later is phytocentric. Each puts forth what they call irrefutable proof. Paleo eaters say our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate meat and so should we. Vegans cite the similarities between the digestive apparatuses of humans and primates, who are themselves virtually vegan, and the fact that the world's longest-lived peoples eat mainly plants. But no human society in history has excluded animal products entirely, and even monkeys and apes have been known to hunt. The centenarians of the world include a small fraction of some combination of eggs, dairy and fish in their diet, or about 1 to 5 percent of total calories. Maybe this small amount, swinging as it does widely into the domain of vegetation, represents the happy medium. I, however, am a vegan entire, at least for now. 

I like to witness reaction formation at work at social gatherings whenever I preach veganism to friends and watch them nod patronizingly as they shovel piles of flesh onto their plate. I know I'm pretty convincing. I am after all the son of a lawyer. But barbecue tastes damn fine, and it's still a free country. 

Reaction formation occurs in other areas of life as well. For instance, in religion. Jesus Christ's life and teachings could be said to be a reaction to the paganism that had taken hold in civilization in the years BC. A product of Greek mythology, the god Pan ruled the wild, music, sex and spring. With the haunches and horns of a goat, and the burly torso of a track athlete, Pan represented our link with the beastial, and he spent his time running in the woods and fornicating with nymphs. Pan's Roman counterpart was Faunus. Then Christ arrived on the scene and preached and lived an abstemious life. His plain and simple injunction that "whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" leaves no room for doubt. There is no place in this equation to "eat, drink and be merry" which is the sensualist's slogan.  Christ practiced what he preached. His life was his message. He was a celibate, despite what the author of The Da Vinci Code would have us believe. He had few possessions. He was uncultured and informally educated and spent his life working with his hands - when he wasn't consoling the needy and curing the sick and mouthing parables. Though his many miracles included turning water into wine he wasn't depicted drinking much of the stuff, except to encourage his disciples to think of him, as he did at his Last Supper. 

But there is a connection between the two dieties of antiquity. Like Pan, patron of the shepherds, Christ himself was a shepherd, if not of sheep then certainly of men. Christ was sent by the Father to lead humans back to God - and away from the god of self-indulgence who tantalized the minds of the ruling-class Romans. No wonder they persecuted and ridiculed poor JC. A man greedily guards his vices and visits his wine-soaked wrath on anyone who jeopardizes them.

But neither the lasciviousness of Pan nor the asceticism of Christ is the right path, for both are lacking. That is to say, neither represents the totality of existence. Everything under the sun has its place in the grand scheme or else it wouldn't exist. If God is good and all is God, then the logic is plain: All is good. This includes heartfelt prayer and selfless service as well as heady drink and sultry caresses. The trick is to enjoy the world in all its manifold glory. To be present in the moment and drink deeply of the cup of life. If you refrain, don't judge others for doing so; but if you indulge, don't you yourself get drowned. Because it's easy to get lost in life's many diversions, so remain unattached. Happenings come and go. The one they happen to is always with you. Is you.

Now, most of us in this overly, overtly pious age opt to worship or admire heaven-sent Christ over his earthy, lascivious counterpart. Churches the world over still fill their pews each Sunday. But this may represent a fear of the very urges religion cautions against. It may be a reaction formation to the drives which besiege the heart as well as the loins. You cannot repress a desire once it arises. Desire drives one through life. It exists to be fulfilled, or in the case of many of my own personal wishes, to be frustrated until it is squelched. Be moderate. One potato chip in hand doesn't need to lead to the entire bag. The occasional glass of wine shouldn't become the nightly bottle. Then again, maybe it should. Desires can be quenched, and they can also be drowned. But whichever way you swing, plant or protein, wine or worship, have the combined teachings of Christ and his predecessor in mind and know that the happy medium is the satisfactory compromise. The middle ground is best. Then you can enjoy both worlds, earthly and divine. Another name for paradise.


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