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A Cypriot’s Problem, or How Not to Deal with Existential Anxiety

A Cypriot’s Problem, or How Not to Deal with Existential Anxiety

What’s our problem? What’s in a problem?

There is an old joke that participants to Cyprus conflict seminars probably heard more than once. It pokes fun at a peculiar Cypriot fixation, still highly topical, and goes like this.

Three men are sentenced to death in a faraway country: an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Cypriot. On the day of their execution they are asked to name their last wish. The Englishman asks for a cigar; the Frenchman for a glass of wine. The Cypriot asks to be granted a last opportunity to talk to the execution squad about the Cyprus Problem. On hearing this, the Frenchman and the Englishman change their last wish and beg to be shot before the Cypriot starts talking. 

We know, at least since Sigmund Freud’s seminal work, that a joke is never just a laughing matter. It can have a social function, publicly releasing repressed ideas and feelings that often remain unconscious or unstated. To that extent, psychoanalysis combined with hermeneutics can give accounts for the euphoria and insight for some participants and not for others. Why and how is a joke funny or not funny? What ways of life (and what ways of death as in the joke above) does it consciously or unconsciously ridicule or celebrate? And for our purposes in this short essay, how can a joke inform the current ‘problem’ in Cyprus, which is not just political but psychological?

Those who find this joke funny seem to delight at the exposure of a long established Cypriot obsession with debating the Cyprus Problem ad infinitum (more that 40 or 50 years depending when one thinks it started); not just negotiating locally but pestering unconcerned foreigners at every opportunity, seeking to educate those who don’t seem to ‘get it’ after all these years. They laugh at the discreet charm of the Cypriot, his total lack of measure or sense of proper time and place for advocating his rights and explaining his suffering. And they laugh at the narcissistic pleasure the Cypriot seems to take in being didactic about his problem, so much so that he appears oblivious of his other real problem, i.e. that his life is soon to reach an abrupt end.

Those who don’t find this joke funny don’t necessarily lack a sense of humour. Some, especially Cypriots who may also feel the urge to talk and lecture others about ‘the problem’, can sympathize with a man’s commitment to publicize his small country’s big problem. They see in his behaviour at most a tragic irony, not a matter to be derided. Others may read in the joke (not unjustifiably), elements of colonial humour, the civilizer’s so-called burden with the native’s problem, even after the latter’s emancipation from the master. Isn’t it a sign of western civility not to bother others with one’s problem and a sign of oriental emotivism to seek to bother them at every opportunity? From this angle the joke is tasteless, not least because the colonialist may have contributed in the creation of the problem he now complains about. Also, the joke’s emplotment encourages us to view the end-of-life indulgence in one’s private pleasures as normal (smoking a cigar, drinking wine), whilst the indulgence in collective or socially meaningful goals as abnormal or vain. In short, those who find it funny as well as those who don’t may themselves harbour narcissistic tendencies by positive or negative association.

Post-Freudian psychoanalysis has viewed narcissism as a ‘semi-pathological phenomenon’. It identified a healthy narcissism, stemming from the ‘primary narcissism’ of the child and necessary for ego protection and self respect. But it has also studied the narcissism that exceeds normal ego development and leads to destructive and aggressive behaviour, physical or discursive. With respect to the latter, Erich Fromm spoke of group narcissism that is associated with nations and nationalism, suggesting that ethno-nationalist conflicts also entailed a clash of narcissisms. Though one must be careful not to reduce all aspects of a conflict to psychological phenomena, the role of ego-centricity and self-love should not be ignored.

Concerning their conflict, Cypriots are caught in a narcissistic game whose stakes are extremely high. Group narcissism psychically functions to produce a collective ‘ego ideal’ to which members of the group (however this is defined) are expected to live up to and if not are then castigated. This speaks not only of Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot nationalism but equally of neo-Cypriot nationalism that is supposed to be pro-reconciliation, yet reproduces a Cypriot superego vis-à-vis the ‘primitive’ Greek and Turkish ones. Group narcissists of this type ceaselessly talk and lecture about ‘the problem’ through idealized and romanticized images of the Self (Cyprus, Greece, Turkey), and deride and attack those who fail to live up to the expectations of their superego. Tragically, because the beautiful image they have fallen in love with is confirmed by others in their group, they view their behaviour as normal and therefore less likely to accept it as pathological. There is an aesthetic certitude and erotic excitement when talking about their collective ego, its destiny and its problems

We think of the Cyprus Problem in the way that we do primarily because of the way we talk about it. And the way we talk about it is deeply connected to the meaning this discourse gives to our lives, the status it grants to our individual and collective selves. It does not take much for narcissists to move from healthy group narcissism – necessary for social cohesion and solidarity – to pathological group narcissism which brings with it a crusading spirit against threats to one’s Self image and as such something that perpetuates conflict. It only requires a link that politicians are keen to make and which the mass media amplify on a daily basis: namely, defining any questioning and negative depiction of the group’s Self image (either from inside or outside the group) as existential threat, which in turn threatens the individual’s erotic excitement and pleasure. Sublimated as patriotism, it triggers individual existential anxiety; denying someone’s routine pleasure is akin to denying one’s reason for being. The group’s problem becomes the individual’s problem, larger than life, and sometimes (when exacerbated by lack of other pleasures or erotic objects) even the actual meaning of life. Among highly mobilized activists, the group’s problem acquires an erotic qua ethical significance at the same time as it is reduced to a pathetic game of collective image management and branding. Thus the need to constantly talk about the beloved, to struggle to enhance or correct the collective ego’s image before eponymous and anonymous others; even before one’s executioners, for others will follow the ethico-erotic struggle of the protagonist.  

What the most famous Cypriot politician said with reference to his own struggle is pertinent here: ‘Even if Makarios dies, one thousand Makarioses will continue the struggle.’ Meaning, the struggle is bigger than me and will outlive me. But also the struggle will continue (for many years, if not forever – makrochronios agonas) because it is so (morally) seductive, because the collective ego is so beautiful, and by extension I – valiantly fighting for it – am also beautiful and worthy of love. From this perspective, the joke’s protagonist on death-roll is not a mere comic narcissus but a paradigmatic figure. He deals with his existential anxiety by unconsciously resorting back to daily routines that have been meaningful to his social life in Cyprus, i.e. talking about and publicizing the trite dramas of the Cyprus Problem, and through them, in effect, also talking about his life and himself.

The psychical significance of humanity’s search for existential meaning is associated with the so-called Third Vienna School of Psychotherapy which is based on the innovative work of Viktor Frankl.  Following from Freud’s theory that psychic conflicts are the result of an unconscious ‘will to pleasure’ (First Vienna School) to Alfred Adler’s theory that psychic conflicts are caused by an unconscious ‘will to power’ (Second Vienna School), Frankl developed an existentialist scheme tracing psychic problems to an unconscious ‘will to meaning’. His theory, also known as logotherapy, was developed out of his own experience at Nazi concentration camps where death was imminent, life stripped of any value or meaning, yet survivors managed to linger on by having or constructing a logos, a reason for being. Frankl argues that ‘the meaning of life’ is not universally the same and cannot be answered abstractly or given to an individual by someone else. It is rather the product of a self-discovery, something that is ‘revealed’ to humans in the everyday acts of living and social routines that are peculiar to their individual circumstances. The meaning of life helps individuals to overcome their existential anxiety and it is especially comforting in dire circumstances and when one comes closer to one’s death. To that extent, any personal task or mission, including commitment to the resolution of the Cyprus Problem or other problems, can be given existential value and elevated to a meaning of life. If so, it can serve as a sedative in the face of death or as a stimulant under different circumstances.

The Cyprus Problem has a peculiar connection to the Third Vienna School of Psychotherapy.

Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning was translated into Greek and introduced to the (Greek) Cypriot society by a controversial political figure, the Cypriot psychiatrist Takis Evdokas. It was translated while Evdokas was in prison for publishing an article titled ‘Machiavelli to Makarios’, considered by the court as hubristic and libelous to the Cypriot President. Evdokas was the only person who a few years earlier had dared to challenge the incumbent in the 1968 Presidential election (an election that was delayed due to the intercommunal violence in 1963-4 and the breakdown of the bicommunal constitutional order that allowed Makarios to declare a state of emergency and rule under the doctrine of necessity). Though himself a respectable figure who in the past had also been a personal friend of Makarios, his candidacy was not taken seriously and in the end received less than 4% of votes compared to 96% plus for Makarios. Others more prominent than Evdokas in the opposition camp declined to formally challenge Makarios given the climate of intimation against them, which popularly associated dissent with undermining not just the leader but the national cause and struggle.

Evdokas recalls that it was after reading Frankl’s book (in one go, in one single night!) that he gathered the necessary courage and literally made up his mind to challenge Makarios. ‘Frankl’s book helped me to clear any doubt that I had’, Evdokas says, and points to ‘the happiness and internal satisfaction that I felt because I was dedicating myself to a struggle for freedom and democracy’ (pp. 48-49). The Cyprus Problem, for Evdokas, was inextricably linked to Makarios’ psychological problem, his narcissistic rule. Evdokas wrote a book about it with the revealing title, ‘I Am Cyprus’, referring to Makarios. Rescuing Cyprus from the narcissism of its leader was elevated to a newly found meaning of life, thus launching an interesting but short-lived career in Cypriot politics. It was the mental stimulant that helped the young Cypriot psychiatrist to overcome his existential fear (‘not to take into account death any more’, p. 48), including implicit and explicit threats against his life and social status in Cyprus.

The Cyprus Problem as a meaning of life, as sedative and stimulant, has not just personal but social implications for which Evdokas was aware of and which perhaps explain his subsequent early retirement from ‘active politics’. One’s problem will always extend beyond oneself. Defining the meaning of life through a political objective may give a person ‘happiness and internal satisfaction’ but that can be attained at the expense of social unhappiness and external dissatisfaction for others. This goes beyond one’s political opponents or others who may pursue equally legitimate counter-objectives; it can also affect sympathizers of the cause and people close to the one whose life is totally consumed by a political struggle, including one’s family. (‘The cry of Winnie Mandela’ as Njabulo Ndebele put it, the personal and social expectations of being associated with a man whose life is his struggle, however noble that struggle is, meaning that one must always be judged by the moral parameters of the struggle.) The question consequently is who is left outside the mirror of admiration one holds before one’s individual or collective self and what ethical responsibility is owed to those who are left out.

Note that for Frankl associating the meaning of life with narcissism, with the ‘pursuit of an achievement’ (scientific, monetary, social, political or counter-narcissist as in the case of Evdokas) is one way but not the most interesting or spiritual way of dealing with existential anxiety. He warns about the danger of fanatically pursuing pseudo-values or ideals and idealizations that are only a cover up for one’s internal conflicts. He is especially critical of vain self-expressions and pursuits that create temporary existential comfort for one but remain unconcerned about the existence and spiritual ambitions of others. Frankl is more interested in the small practices of everyday life, the openness to everything that exists around one, the experience of nature or culture, the love and care for those close to someone. This is not to belittle political causes or the fact that some may require total commitment, and indeed healthy narcissism. The problem lies with the kind of life commitments that this creates and which impose upon others a realm of moral edicts and social expectations, a realm normalized and naturalized by seeing the political cause as legitimately life-consuming.

Are we then stuck in a psycho-drama of competing narcissisms and life-meaning soap operas? Are conflicted humans inescapably bound to their ethico-erotic struggles (a Freudian ‘sad disclosure for the moralist’) or can they redeem themselves from their psychological and self-inflicting problems? The task is not at all easy – not only for conflicted Cypriots but more widely for modern subjects. The difficulty lies in that through extreme love of the ego modern humans lost not just the meaning of life but the love of life, including the Nietzschean recognition that to live is to be at risk. Fromm argues that the freedom modern humans currently have is highly ambivalent. The freedom gained from the bonds of medieval society, has created insecurity, anxiety and ultimately powerlessness with regard to what to do with it, the freedom to be this OR that, to do this OR that. Besides fear of death, modern humans have developed a fear of life. This fear of life, Fromm suggests, individuals often manage by ‘escaping from freedom’, by submitting to established routines, economies of logic and social expectations about what kind of life or problem is or must be meaningful. To that extent, they appear unwilling to socially experiment or risk with ways of living that they are not used to or told they are not feasible from a short-sighted ego-centric angle. The Shakespearean motto to be or not to be is not posed as a real question and difficult quest but as an edict to most people: to be is not to be. Life is only possible with this option, not with the other; whereas the love-of-life approach that is lacking suggests that life is also possible with the other option, and that in any case life always entails more than one option.

There is more than one way of seeing and resolving the Cyprus Problem as well as living with it. Often persuaded that they are only safe with one way, Cypriots talk and talk about the problem rather than genuinely experiment in resolving or learning to talk less and live around or beyond the problem. All kinds of other problems are sidelined because of the problem: e.g., legal exceptionalism, protection of minorities, environmental issues, etc. A look at the largely comfortable lifestyle both north and south of the Buffer Zone and ‘the problem’ pales by comparison to serious problems around the globe (thus the joke at the UN Headquarters that the mission is not currently engaged in peacekeeping but beachkeeping). Partly because of this comfort, Cypriots have become too precious about principles that they think support their case, elevate their problem into life-meaning ideology and tie it to a variety of narcissistic discourses. A way out appears unlikely, even if a settlement is found, as its ‘difficult’ or ‘partial’ implementation may be the start of a ‘new problem’ for the narcissists. For any hope of redemption the struggle needs to be internalized; that is, for the thousand Makarioses that continue the struggle – Greek and Turkish alike – to realize their own complicity in the making of the problem.

Professor of International Relations (University of Nicosia). Dr. Constantinou is the author of On the Way to Diplomacy and States of Political Discourse: Words, Regimes, Seditions and co-editor of Cultures and Politics of Global Communication and Sustainable Diplomacies. Constantinou’s research has been funded by the EU 7th Framework Programme, the Leverhulme Trust, the Centre for World Dialogue, and the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO).


Evdokas, Takis, ‘Ego Eimai i Kypros’: I Proti Periodos tis Kypriakis Dimokratias [‘I Am Cyprus’: The First Period of the Cyprus Republic] (Nicosia: Tamasos Publications, 1990)

Evdokas, Takis, Politikos kai Psychiatros [Politician and Psychiatrist] (Athens: Diodos, 2007)

Frankl, Victor E., Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984)

Fromm, Erich, Escape from Freedom (New York: Henry Holt, 1965)

Fromm, Erich, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (London: Penguin, 1977)

Freud, Sigmund, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (London: Penguin, 1991)

Freud, Sigmund, ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’ in his On Metapsychology: The Theory of Pyschoanalysis (London: Penguin, 1991)

Ndebele, Njabulo, The Cry of Winnie Mandela (Oxford: Ayebia, 2003)

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