I have been wondering about how I might best describe the Lacanian concept of Lack to readers who might have litte interest in psychoanalysis or philosophy. I want to explain this concept, however, because more so than religion or do it yourself-inspiration/motivation, it has improved my perspective regarding the ebb and flow of human existence. I suppose, I wish to spread the good news that psychoanalysis has brought to me. Like any other zealous evangelist, I shall do my best.
In effort to help you imagine my analogy, please take a moment to reflect on the image above. This is the bannister in my home, leading upstairs to the second floor. Like the Lacanian Lack, it both is and isn’t. I shall clarify. There is a hand rail which rests atop spindles. Between the spindles are spaces through which air flows. The spaces contain nothing. Yet, as they exist between spindles, they are something, for if they weren’t there–if the spaces didn’t exist–there would instead be a wall, or else there would be an opening. Because of the spaces between spindles, and only because of the spaces between them, can this bannister display the particular aesthetic to which it aspires. Thus, in its current state, containing this pattern of spindle, air, spindle, air, it simultaneously is and isn’t.
In the same way, the Lack is something that both is and isn’t. It’s something every human simultaneously has and has not, and yet it is integral to each of us. Without it, we would not be that which we are. We would be something entirely other–in the same manner as the bannister without spaces would be, instead, a wall or an open space.
What does all this have to do with Thanksgiving, you ask? The Lack impacts every area of the human experience. As such, it impacts the human capacity for gratitude.
The Lack arises with subjectivity. Subjectivity develops in early childhood, when the infant discovers his/her physical separateness. As soon as the infant becomes aware of his/her separateness from mOther, he/she develops individual subjectivity, forming independent ideas, opinions, and striving to understand both his/her own desire and the desire of his/her mOther (any caretaker, really–but those who guard and nurture the child, who are not themselves the child). Since the Lack arises out of subjectivity, it is a nothingness we all possess, but in our conscious lives, we fail to notice its existence. It drives our behaviors, constructs our thoughts, and incites all manner of chaos within our psyches. From that moment, or epoch, of subjective awareness of alienation as independent humans, we are driven to fill the void it produces. The problem is that the void is a phantom. It exists insomuch as it is a driving force in our lives, but it has no tangible or discernable form. It’s sort of like the ghost of objectivity, the ghost of wholeness, the ghost of the mother’s womb.
Because we are each, in turn, unconsciously haunted by the lack we perceive in ourselves, we react emotionally, physically, and psychically to the perceived wholeness of those around us. Jealousy and envy are derivative of our perception of everyone else’s wholeness. This is driven by our desire to be on level ground with all the others. We don’t wish our lack away, but we wish their lack of lack away. I am lacking; my neighbor is not. I want my neighbor to lack as I do.
Several years ago, my husband and I hosted my parents and older brother for Thanksgiving. We moved several states north of the family, and my side traveled the twelve hours to our humble home for the occasion. After a few years of enacting a Thanksgiving ritual with my husband’s family, I decided to facilitate the tradition with my side. I asked each member of the party to share something for which they were thankful at the time. My brother, five years my senior, began thus, “To tell you the truth, Julie, I ain’t got nuthin to be thankful for right now.”
“I take that back.” He turned to my husband, then said, “I am thankful for you, Phil, for putting up with Julie.”
Imagine my face (you’ve seen it all over this blog) crestfallen.
He looked me in the eyes, and said with justification, “What?! You’re no angel.”
This wasn’t a playful family roast. It isn’t like that with my family. On the contrary, this was my brother’s attempt at communicating “I am lacking. I am deeply affected by my lack. You, Julie, do not seem to have a lack. I want you to lack as I do. I want you to be deeply affected by it, and I will help you get there.”
I cannot deny how deeply his comments cut–how the memory still stings. Nevertheless, I realize we all think and feel and act just as my brother did on that tense Thanksgiving afternoon. Yet, I promised good news, and here it is: we can overcome. We cannot make the lack go away. If I want the spaces between the spindles in my stairwell filled in, I woud change the composition of the structure, entirely. The attempt to spackle over our inner fissures does not make them go away.
The answer isn’t to fill the void. We do not have God-shaped holes in our hearts. We have the appearance of absence, lurking in perception’s periphery–in its shadows. But just like a photo is a likeness of a thing and not the thing, the appearance of an absence is not, in its essence, an absence. We are heaping layers of spackle over holes that aren’t physically present, and it’s compromising the integrity of the wall.
I said we can overcome, but how? If there isn’t a real hole to cover, then what do we do? How do we get past the feelings of jealousy, envy, fear, and despair?
We must consciously accept the lack produced by subjectivity. We must consciously accept our phantom negation. It will always be there. I will always feel as though I am lacking something. This is liberating, however, because if I know I will always feel less than complete, then I can stop trying to stuff myself with all that might complete me. The drive to fill the hole becomes an obsession, and it spirals and swells, until it drags us against the sea floor in the undertow.
At the same time, we must consciously accept that our neighbors, while they seem to have it all together, are just as haunted by the lack as we are. My neighbor isn’t whole. He doesn’t lack the lack. He’s just as effed up as I am, and this awareness, too, is liberating. I don’t have to compete. I don’t have to please. I don’t have to solve the problem of his lack.
Gratitude sprouts when we recognize that lack is inherent to the human experience. I will always feel like something is missing. My neighbor will always feel like something is missing. I don’t have to compete. I don’t have to compare. I don’t have to fix it. I don’t have to fill the vacant room in my soul that doesn’t actually exist. I don’t have to fill the vacant room in my neighbor’s soul that doesn’t actually exist. Above all, I don’t need to force others to furnish the vacant room (that doesn’t exist) in my soul.
Think again upon the stairway. Think upon the handrail, supported by spindles and space. The space must exist. The lack is inherent to our human experience. If we liken the lack to the space between spindles, we can liken life to the spindles themselves. Life is what happens all around the absence we perceive. When we fixate over the absence, we take for granted all that takes shape surrounding it.
Happy Thanksgiving, friends. May you recognize the permanence of your lack, and free yourself from the compulsion to fill it. Likewise, may you recognize the lack in your neighbor, so you may free yourself from the drive to compete and compare. In so doing, may you find space for gratitude. I hope I might, as well.
If you want to learn more about these ideas, I recommend checking out the following media:
The content provided via the above links has shaped much of the thinking I have shared in this post. I didn’t directly quote anyone, but this is sort of a summary of the understanding I have gained from these sources.