6 takeaways from Freud’s hideout
It was 1938.
Nazi rule had taken over Austria, anti-Semitism was ballooning. A close friend pleaded for him to leave and promised to arrange his escape.
Sigmund Freud was determined to stay in Vienna, where he’d birthed the field of psychoanalysis.
But the imminent danger of Nazi occupation became clear, and he fled, managing to take some of his family with him to Hampstead in north London.
There he lived, his last year on Earth, in exile.
The house that was his home is now a museum, and I visited it last month. For me, it underscored six important lessons. Let’s step inside.
1. Resiliency first, everything else second
“A good half of the art of living is resilience.”
― Alain de Botton
Freud took his struggles in jest. He made a macabre joke about his growing unpopularity in Germany:
“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.”
Then there’s the tongue-in-cheek one-liner he’s rumored to have added on a prewritten text praising Nazi treatment, which he was forced to sign for a visa:
“I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”
Like so many, his resiliency was sustained by a witty and ironic sense of humor.
2. Be eccentric
“You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”
― Lewis Carroll
If Freud’s house is any indication, the guy was weird.
It was filled with all kinds of knick-knacks he’d collected on trips around the world, each one strange in their own way.
Especially strange was the row of statues lined up on his desk, like soldiers at attention, staring him down as if he wanted or needed an audience to write to.
It’s said that he viewed his sculptures as “primal expressions of the human mind.”
He embraced his eccentricity. It was by being true to his obsessions that he found success.
3. Read, read, read
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” — Ray Bradbury
Behind every successful thinker is a kickass library.
The entire back wall of Freud’s office was filled with volumes of books. Not just any books.
Some of his favorites included Wilhelm Jensen’s Gravida, which inspired his first book, The Interpretation of Dreams.
Another in his collection: La Peau de chagrin. The story is a metaphor for the spiritually impoverishing effect of unhinged desire and materialism.
It’s said to be the last book Freud ever read.
When younger, he didn’t have a library of his own. A letter from his youth read:
“I am gradually making up for my lack of knowledge of modern literature through our Union library.”
4. Surround yourself with nature
“As a human-being, you always take on the form of the environments you continually place yourself.” — Benjamin Hardy
In modern life, the importance of enjoying the things around us is consistently drowned out by the stresses of our lives.
But psychologists are beginning to understand that our environment’s affect us to an extent few imagined before.
Perhaps some understanding of this impact led Freud to write about the importance of beauty and nature.
“[T]he beauty of human forms and gestures, of natural objects and landscapes and of artistic and even scientific creations…offers little protection against the threat of suffering, but it can compensate for a great deal.”
His London home had a beautiful backyard. Maybe it was there where he went to escape all those weird looking statues.
5. History is powerful, and often invisible
“History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.” Lord Acton
I think there are two types of travelers.
The first is someone who likes to be in the moment and experience things through their own existential lens.
The second is someone who wants to research everything, plan out destinations and historical sites. The person who takes the time to read every word on every placard.
Both have their own benefits. For Freud’s house though, the latter is likely the only type of traveler to get there. On the way, our directions led us through an obscure neighborhood to a random street.
Aside from a plaque out front and a trash can covered in stickers with Freud’s face on them — used admission tickets — the house looked like every other. Anyone could miss it.
It takes time and energy, but the second type of travel is what fills me with satisfaction. An invisible matrix weaves our world together, and the threads are made up of history.
6. No one is immune to tragedy
Not you, not I, not Freud. But we are in luck because this is true:
“You normally have to be bashed about a bit by life to see the point of daffodils, sunsets and uneventful nice days.”
― Alain de Botton
There are forces in this world working beyond our control. And you never really know when tragedy is going to hit you. So…
Relentlessly seize your dreams while you can.
Whenever possible, turn tragedy into opportunity. The lives we most remember were punctuated by tragedies in the first place.
In closing, my favorite Freud quote, below. At least he gave the censor some damn good material to read.
“Civilization began the first time an angry person cast a word instead of a rock.”