To be alive is to be motivated. At any given moment in time, you have one of two motivating factors influencing you:
1. The pursuit of a reward: Greek philosophers like Aristotle would tell us that there is no such thing as a completely selfless act. Humans ever and always are motivated by the pursuit of their own good. There is really nothing wrong with this. To ignore “The Self” is to cease to exist. When someone says, “I didn’t want to do X, but I did it anyway,” they are deceiving themselves. The reality is that they did want to do X, but their statement acknowledges the fact that it was not for the direct pleasure but a reward beyond the pain. This is an important concept to understand if you are going to understand what motivates you in life. Many people endure painful experiences in the hope that it will produce something positive in the end. When we do stupid stuff, we are acknowledging ahead of time that the end result will not be good, but we are willing to sacrifice the future for the immediate pleasure of the moment.
2. The avoidance of pain: No one likes to hurt. Even people that intentionally cut on themselves or engage in some self-destructive activity are ultimately attempting to avoid pain. The truth is they subject themselves to a lesser pain to avoid something they imagine would be unbearable. For instance, individuals who struggle with eating disorders will often say that their malnutrition and hunger pains allow them to avoid a sense of helplessness or lack of control. It is the lack of control that is unbearable to them, not the sense of starvation!
This is the logic behind The Death Drive, a concept articulated by Freud, but named byWilhelm Stekel using the greek word, Thanatos. Thanatos in Greek mythology was the God of Death. In psychological terms, it is the counterintuitive urge within us to destroy. Think about why when you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or on the top of the Empire State Building you are both compelled and repulsed by the possibility of jumping. Imagine a child building a sand castle on an ocean shore. When they have completed it, their next action is often to stomp all over it! As humans, we are fascinated by that moment when all things come to an end.
I believe there are two reasons for this destructive urge within us:
1. Aggressive Power: The first reason humans do stupid stuff is to foster an innate desire to assert power and control over a situation, even if that means destruction. “Because I can” is a phrase repeated by many an individual who willing engages in a destructive act. In essence, the action becomes an adolescent-like retort to every parent of society: “You can’t tell me what to do!!” Sometimes we speed, steal, lie, cheat, get drunk, curse, or fight simply because someone tells us not to. We want freedom, even if we are restricted to the freedom of self-destruction.
2. Immediate Redemption: The second reason people often choose to do stupid stuff is to experience immediate redemption. Everybody enjoys the do-over, the mulligan, the clean slate, or the false start. We all need a second chance, but when things get messy, we find it easier to change plans, locations, relationships, jobs, and all other circumstances to avoid ongoing suffering. Unfortunately, Redemption’s road is often long and arduous and the people who look for the quick fix or escape often find themselves repeating the same struggles over and over again.
The Death drive can be channeled in two directions:
1. An Inward Focus:We see this inwardly destructive tendency in those who consciously or unconsciously enter abusive relationships similar to those of their past. They find some sense of power in the familiarity of the situation, even if it is self-destructive in nature. They also hope for a do-over, a chance to fix a problem that has surfaced in a current relationship with the same old solutions they tried in a previous one.
2. An Outward Focus: The outwardly focused death-drive becomes a means of asserting power aggressively over others. Abusers often act on this drive. The 90’s rock band, Nickleback, had a song wherein the lead singer describes his love of all the degrading things his girlfriend does during their sexual encounters only to conclude in the chorus that the challenge of “figuring her out” was not as difficult as he thought it would be. Ironically, the last verse of the song twists his love for her into hatred. The implication is that he is now on to the next conquest, thus feeding his inner desire for the do-over, a new opportunity to assert his control and assuage his own helplessness and shame by inflicting it on others.
Feodor Dostoyevsky, the brilliant Russian novelist who wrote Crime and Punishment, provides a powerful description, if not explanation, of the death drive in action through his character, Nastasya Filipovna, in his novel, The Idiot. Though loved and proposed to by the purest and most noble character in the story, Prince Myshkin, she chooses instead to debase herself with the vilest individuals in society. Dostoevsky reflects on her behavior through Myshkin’s character:
“She ran away from me. Do you know what for? Simply to show me that she was a degraded creature. But the most awful thing is that perhaps she didn’t even know herself that she only wanted to prove that to me, but ran away because she had an irresistible inner craving to do something shameful, so as to say, to herself at once, ‘There, you’ve done something shameful again, so you’re a degraded creature!’ …Do you know that in that continual consciousness of shame there is perhaps a sort of awful, unnatural enjoyment for her, a sort of revenge on some one.”
So how do we fight against the death drive?
1. Confront your rage: People who do stupid things to themselves or to others usually harbor a deep-seated anger. Counseling can help to uproot this anger and begin to address it in a healthy way. Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. The only way you will be able to stop punishing yourself or someone else is to acknowledge and be aware of the source of your anger and begin the process of managing it successfully.
2. Commit to the long-haul: There is no quick fix. Slow down and accept some of the momentary suffering that you may be experiencing. Some of the stupidest things we do are actions taken to relieve immediate suffering without taking the time to consider what our current pain might be teaching us for the long-term successes waiting for us.
Question: What about you? Where does the death drive rear its ugly head in your life? What solutions have you found for overcoming our human tendency to do stupid stuff in the moment? I hope you remember that there is always redemption to be had. It just might be a little farther down the road than you originally thought. I hope you can say that it is worth the wait!