I’ve lived long enough now to confirm Jung’s and Freud’s theory of the existence of the unconscious, and I believe I’ve figured out how to better understand it. What I’ve realized is that it helps to think of the unconscious as “the little guy,” while the conscious self is “the big guy.” The little guy is like a hard-drinking independent contractor who lives in the ten-story library warehouse basement of our brains. He takes on lots of jobs but does them on his own schedule. To find the files on people’s names and movies you’ve seen that actor in before, he has to climb a ladder that’s on rollers, and he’s not a fast climber. The big guy is like a CEO. He’s in charge. He often asks the little guy to do jobs but knows he’s not always dependable. He regards the little guy as a kind of idiot savant.
I was first clued in to this dynamic once when I woke up in the middle of the night to do what is referred to in genteel circles as “pay a visit to Uncle Blad,” an uncle without peer, a regular wiz. I say “woke up,” but actually only my little guy was awake. He’s not very quick, what from being stuck in a basement and the heavy drinking, so he functions like an auto pilot. My bathroom was down the hall, and on this night the bedroom door was closed and my wife had hung clothes on the back of the door that covered the doorknob. So my little guy, who had steered me to the bathroom countless times with no trouble, this time had trouble. He groped for the doorknob, but could not find it. I imagine my little guy talked to himself: “Uh oh. The door’s closed. Door knob? Door knob? Where’s the door knob? Hmmm. Looks like I’m gonna have to wake up the big guy.” Which he did, and the big guy took over.
I bet you, too, have experienced this dynamic when driving. Many’s the time my conscious self has delegated the driving to my unconscious. The little guy’s poor about keeping a steady speed and he’s zoomed right past intended exits, but he’s pretty good at keeping the car between the painted lines and avoiding wrecks. This arrangement has allowed my big guy to indulge in more interesting mental pursuits, like figuring out ways to help my mother, before she died, be happier; and imagining new humor column topics.
Whatever deficiencies my little guy might have, I forgive him—because in certain areas, such as feelings, he’s a savant rather than an idiot. I realized this truth some months after I began spending a lot of time with Carolyn. We weren’t exactly dating. We were in graduate school together in Knoxville, and she had no car. So I was taking her and her son to Shoney’s for supper and then to Kroger for groceries. The three of us also went to the circus and the zoo that fall. We looked like a family and were often mistaken for one. But I knew Carolyn had at least two other suitors besides an estranged husband back in Minnesota.
Then came a winter day—the second day in a row that university classes were canceled for snow. On the first snow day, Carolyn, her four-year-old son wearing my cowboy hat (which fit him), and I—had had a great time playing in the snow. A great time. But we made no plans for the next day. On that second snow day, as I walked into a Walgreen’s near campus, I saw Carolyn with another man who I knew was after her. Now before this moment, the fact that other men were pursuing her hadn’t consciously bothered me even though I admired and liked Carolyn very much. But at this moment my unconscious shot a message up to my conscious self, a message that went like this: “You idiot. You dumb, stupid idiot. Why didn’t you ask Carolyn to spend today w’ you? I got news for you, Buddy. You’re in love with her. You been in love with her, you nincompoop.”
Now I’m as surprised as you are at the little guy’s harsh language and derogatory tone that day—but I have to admit he was within his rights. Who was he, he thought, to tell his boss he was in love? Wasn’t that something so important that a CEO should know without a basement employee, a lowly functionary, having to tell him? My little guy must have watched in frustration and disgust for days, weeks even, before his outburst. Who can blame him? I don’t.
Have I rambled on too long? I’m sorry. I wasn’t conscious of it.