How “The Matrix Resurrections” Critiques Psychotherapy

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I loved the new Matrix movie. I felt skeptical initially. Another reboot? I watched it only because my parents wanted to. But surprisingly it had many smart ideas about what it means to live today in the age of the internet, social media, and virtual reality. 

But I digress. This is not a movie review. I leave that to others. But as a therapist, I found the movie’s characterization of therapy particularly fascinating. One of the main antagonists of the film is a character called “The Analyst” played by Neil Patrick Harris. Without spoiling too much, our main character, Neo, is in therapy because of an attempted suicide attempt. He sees his analyst who tells him that he has detached from reality and needs to take medication to return to the so-called “real world.”

Therapists in this movie, and I’d argue increasingly in the modern world, are the Brahmins, the priestly caste, connected to the cruel Gods of fate. I’m sure there are great academic articles about this; I think of Nietzsche 140 years ago declaring that God is dead. The modern world had killed him. Science and capitalism had destroyed the mysteries of existence. What replaced God? Work and productivity as Gods, for sure. But also psychoanalysis. No longer did we look to God for answers for the modern bourgeois. But the psychoanalyst would listen to the patient drone on for hundreds of hours and interpret the patient’s sexual and parental traumas to come to a diagnosis as a cure.  

And now in the modern world, the language of therapy is everywhere. I cannot tell you how many of my own patients have self-diagnosed themselves with ADHD or an anxiety disorder because of countless TikTok videos. All of this seeks to make sense of what doesn’t make sense, the absurd and cruel nature of life. I say this not as a critique but as an observation. Life has always been suffering. But the modern world is filled with its own kind of suffering, that of meaninglessness and emptiness.

In the movie and perhaps in our world, the therapist keeps telling Neo to return to the present, to the reality of existence, that his psychosis has led him astray. He tells Neo that he is just a game designer. It may make him feel empty inside, but this is our role in the modern world. Be a worker. Be productive. Your deepest urges and feelings need to be repressed. Questioning the way things are is exhausting. It’s better to just be entertained by our screens and try to pass our lives eeking out a small piece of happiness with our work, our screens, our suburban homes before we die.

What interests me is how ideas that were once revolutionary can easily be co-opted by society at large. Freud and psychoanalysis when introduced were a revolution. Unlike philosophy and economics, it tried to explain the inner workings of the human soul in scientific terms, creating its own language to explain what was often left to others. But as the years have passed on, and genuine religious feeling (and I would argue that many people who are supposedly religious use it as a means of reinforcing their egos and vanity) has become less available to most of us, psychotherapy and the language surrounding it can increasingly become an opiate, as Marx argued religion was.

Or to put it more bluntly, modern therapy not only reinforces the status quo but is the status quo. The analyst in “The Matrix Resurrections” very much doesn’t wants Neo to question his reality too much because it is dangerous. I think of my role as a therapist, and it can very much feel that way with a large portion of patients. I don’t say that with any judgment. Life is fucking hard. People are suffering, and often don’t understand why they are hurting so badly when they have money, homes, family, and jobs. They just want to feel better, not question the ridiculous absurdity of the modern world. So many of us try to get our patients to adjust to a broken society whether it’s by pills or cognitive behavioral therapy or meditation.

I am ok with my role in this for the most part. But it leaves me with a crisis of faith… How do we push back against the perceived injustices of the modern world? The truth is that many therapists come into the profession because they are broken and in a lot of pain themselves. I’d argue that in order for our profession to not just reinforce the status quo, we have to figure our own stuff out. Modern psychotherapy schooling lets us learn the theory and language of our profession, but does not help us reach our own enlightenment of not only ourselves but the world around us. It does not help us figure out our own pain and our meaning in the world. Personally, I think therapists need to be incredibly well-read too. They have to read not only psychotherapy books but religious and philosophical ones. They must also understand modern politics around climate change, economics, and more. In simpler terms, they must understand the existential problems of human existence deeply if they hope to push a person beyond just adjusting to a broken world. 

Of course, this is an impossible task. But I think we must try even in the face of unbeatable odds. If therapists are treated by the modern world as the new priests, then perhaps we need to take that role seriously. 

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