This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Greed is not a word used frequently any more.  Tending to be associated with quaintly prim eras and Victorian novels, the sooty world of Charles Dickens comes to mind with its pickpockets and severe judgments.

Envision Emily Bronte’s floridly romantic character, Heathcliff, grasping for riches and power in Wuthering Heights.  Hunger, poverty and greed were popular 19th century literary themes but tended to be associated with sinful behavior rather than deeper psychoanalytic revelations.  Freud began hypothesizing his original theories of mind in the late 1880’s, as the 20th century approached.

Greed and its origins in infancy

But what about our post-modern society?  Does the concept of greed retain any traction or relevancy for us today?  I think it does.  From a psychoanalytic perspective, the character trait that eventually ossifies as greed has its roots in normal developmental processes of infancy.  We might consider that infantile greed is a ruthless quest for food, sustenance and love – for life.  This is how we all began.

It’s important to clarify that a baby’s greedy hunger is innocent of motive.  A baby desires nothing more than bodily satisfaction.  An infant’s “greed” represents his life force.

While it may appear ruthless, it is far too immature to be considered selfish.  It does not reflect the classic definition of self-serving, malevolent greed, though Victorians might have considered it a type of original sin that had to be beaten out of a child.  A hungry baby who aggressively bites his mother’s breast does not intend to hurt her.  He is simply trying to ease uncomfortable hunger pangs.

Greed, food and love

During infancy and early childhood, aggressiveness and greed are related to feeding.  An infant receiving food experiences his body’s gratification as love.  A hungry baby is, therefore, grasping for food-love.  An utterly passive infant would be incapable of nursing, as vigorous sucking is required to survive.  Aggressive or “greedy” hunger is a vital necessity.

Because an infant is emotionally undeveloped, he cannot distinguish between bodily needs for feeding, diaper changes or temperature adjustments from affection and love.  Love and a clean diaper are experienced identically by a tiny infant.

An elderly patient of mine recalled hospitalizations for childbirth with affection.  She delivered her children when women often remained hospitalized for a week and were treated almost royally.  She was very gratified by the attention, particularly having food delivered and daily clean sheets.  Reactivating very early childhood body memories of careful tending, her hospital experiences felt exactly like primary maternal love.

The body-mind connection

We might imagine that a baby’s mind is located more in his body, primarily his belly, than in his head, where adults tend to locate their mental processes.  Feeding satisfaction and love are inseparable.

Maternity

Maternity

Food and love remain consistently linked, celebrated, in fact, throughout life.  This association might explain why restaurant portions seem to grow exponentially with each passing year.  Piles of food appear to satisfy the greedy emotional belly, way too much for the actual stomach and vascular system.

The origins of eating disorders

You can see just where the seeds of eating disorders are scattered.  If affection, attention and emotional support are lacking in a person’s early maternal environment, food and eating are inserted as substitutes.  The experiences of early childhood are directly reflected in the oscillation between greedy eating, purging or restricting food intake later in life.  Money is another substitute.

Money, greed and love

In many families, money and gifts are substituted when actual demonstrations of affection or love are lacking or withheld.  When this occurs, a child confuses money with love.

Greed for affection is translated into greed for money.  Money withheld is experienced as love withheld.  Ironically, it is often the most affluent who feel they never have enough, always greedy for more.  They are really greedy for love.  Money is the substitute prop, but because it can’t satisfy the core hunger, desires are never sated.  So the consumption continues.

I attended university with the child of a famous entertainer.  Always struggling with food and weight, she had a closet filled with clothes she would never wear, the price tags still attached.  Yet, she continued to devour, never satisfied, eating gallon-sized containers of ice cream at one sitting while bags of garbage piled up in her apartment.  Unable to distinguish between food and poison, her greed resulted in a body and apartment filled with non-nutritive, empty calories.

For many baby boomers, whose parents grew up during the Great Depression and came of age during WWII, financial sponsorship was often the vehicle used by their parents to convey affection and love.  If you read my Father’s Day column, you’ll already know that my relationship with my father was very complex.

Extremely charitable, he was always generous with his time and money, but rarely expressed his love overtly.  Our family was his little corporation, and he demonstrated his love by working hard and caring for us financially.  We all understood his language.

While lavish expressions of affection and currency do not exist necessarily in mutually exclusive spheres, many children receive both, often the former was absent while the latter was substituted for time and attention.  This is where greed begins to germinate, and we are surrounded by evidence of this early childhood emotional bait and switch.

Excessive greed exposes the hungry baby

The hunger for more and more, regardless of need or function, exposes the starving baby, hungry for love.  Our beautiful coastline is dotted with the often grotesque architecture of “starter-castles,” gobbling earth right up to the property line and built for no other purpose than to impress with size.

These bloated gestures fill up their residents with nothing but empty air instead of truly nourishing love.  Like King Midas, they starve to death emotionally amid overflowing plenty.  Visiting the imposing powder room of one such edifice, a friend later confided that she almost expected the Lord to address her as she stared up at the twelve-foot ceiling and though the skylight.

Empty kitchens

Very often these houses contain extensively modeled or refurbished kitchens, filled with severe-looking appliances worthy of a surgical suite – which no one ever uses.  How often have you heard someone say, “Oh, I don’t cook, but I just had to have that kitchen?”

Woman and child

Woman and child

We are really looking at people who still hunger for food-love but do not know how to feed themselves.  Or others.  Their appliances are cold and useless, metaphors for an unresponsive mother.  Though there are stoves to suit everyone’s needs, a really great cook can prepare wondrous delights on a Bunsen burner.

When more is never enough

In the atmospheric Victorian novel, Wuthering Heights, Bronte’s moody character, Heathcliff, an impoverished adopted child, disappears from the rustic family estate after his father dies.  Intending to amass fame and riches, he is starving for acknowledgment.  He returns only to seize the family estate, appropriating the birthright of his drunken, cruel step-brother, metaphorically devouring him greedily.

A young patient of mind arrived one afternoon in tears because her father had given each of his children new cars the day before he left the family to live elsewhere.  While she had wanted a new car, she felt terribly guilty about receiving one that way.

Mostly, she wanted to understand what was happening to her family, why her father and mother were divorcing.  The gift of her father’s time and honesty would have been more emotionally useful to her at that moment.

She wanted a car; she needed her father.  I wondered whether this man thought so little of his own capacity to love that he imagined his children would prefer automobiles to his presence at the dinner table.

Greed and economic collapse

Every economic downturn from the Great Depression to our current mortgage and housing crisis was precipitated and fueled by unrestrained greed.  The malevolent kind.  Thinly veiled behind avarice, a needy, ruthless infant is searching for food-love.  Look closely and you’ll see the crying baby behind the eyes of the executive indicted for fraud.

One of the goals of psychoanalytic therapy is to elevate the belly-mind or the backache-mind or wherever the pain is located in the body-mind, to the linguistic-mind, the seat of language and speech.

Only when unspeakable feelings find their way into the conscious mind, where they can be communicated or articulated to another from within a safe and trustworthy relationship, can the greedy, hungry baby experience true satiation.

Upon reflection, it becomes obvious that greed is very much a feature of our psycho-social environment. The oily accelerant of repeated economic conflagrations, it communicates acutely a very primary degree of infantile neediness.

The next time you see a video of a corporate banking, tobacco or oil company executive lying to Congress, look beneath the sedate suit, and you’ll see a vulnerably helpless baby.   I’ll revisit these executives in an upcoming discussion of psychopathic or sociopathic behavior.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975

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