The Never-Ending Battle of Life Versus Death
America is in a deep funk!
We are battered daily by dysfunction and threats on scales once thought unimaginable. From the constant swirl of highly dangerous international events and inflammatory bluster, incessant right wing hate talk, continual disarray in the White House, it feels that all of the semblances of human and natural order have completely broken down. It’s as if the world has gone totally mad.
One of Sigmund Freud’s most important contributions to our understanding of the human psyche was his initial recognition and subsequent formulation of the Life Versus Death Instincts. While the initial distinction was due mainly to Nietzsche, whom Freud greatly admired for his deep insights into human nature, Freud developed the concept much further, and by doing so, went far beyond Nietzsche.
The awareness of both the fragility and the finality of life—the sheer contemplation of death--were so overwhelming that they exerted a constant and powerful effect over humans every moment of their lives. Indeed, humans expended an incredible amount of effort into denying death. But this only furthered its hold over us. At the very least, the contemplation of death, and thereby the Death Instinct, was always in the background. At worst, it was ever-present in our frequent and unbridled acts of aggression, for instance, our constant preoccupation with wars and readiness to use violence. Its most frequent manifestation was the rejection of reality and reason themselves, which as we’ve seen is an all-too-prominent feature of much of today’s world. In sharp contrast, the Life Instincts are readily present in our many peaceful and joyous celebrations of life.
Tragically, at this moment in history, we are not only inundated by the varied manifestations of the Death Instinct, but it feels as if we are caught in their relentless grip. The following are just a sampling of its many forms and types. The frightening feeling is that they can be multiplied endlessly:
1. The constant threat, all too frequent, and deadly acts of terrorism worldwide.
2. The ever-present danger of nuclear war.
3. The dangerous instability of the entire Middle East with the tragic displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing death and destruction, not least of all being bombed and gassed by their own “leaders,” if that’s what they truly are.
4. The constant threats to bomb the U.S. by the dangerously unstable leader of North Korea.
5. The interference in recent U.S. elections by a threatening Russian President and regime.
6. The recent rise of undemocratic governments around the world.
7. The rise of rabid nationalistic, so-called populist movements precisely when the world is more globally interconnected than ever before and is thus in need of greater cooperation.
8. The wanton, open displays, and marches of fanatical hate groups such as White Supremacists and Neo-Nazis.
9. The increased threats and actual acts of violence towards Blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and other minorities.
10. The extreme polarization and outright contempt between members of different political parties.
11. The distrust of elected leaders and governments worldwide.
12. A President who at best is highly erratic and unpredictable and who many consider temperamentally unfit and unqualified for the most important job on the planet.
13. A White House and Administration in constant disarray and thus unable to cope with the serious forces and issues that demand the most somber and thoughtful attention.
All of the preceding troublesome forces and manifestations of The Death Instinct are not only experienced as major threats resulting in overwhelming anxieties and fears, but they seriously perturb, if not destroy, one’s feelings of being safe and in control, that the world—reality itself—is predictable, orderly and comprehensible, that one can trust one’s fellows and leaders—government itself—to protect us from the manifold dangers of the world. In short, one’s basic beliefs about the goodness, safety, orderliness of the world, and thus humankind, are shattered, often beyond repair. No wonder why the crash of belief systems is not only experienced as major crises, but as major traumas. Indeed, the two are inseparable.
In sum, major crises severely attack and damage one’s foundational beliefs: one’s basic sense of identity, belonging, fundamental values, feelings of security, one’s true purpose in life, and one of the most basic issues of all, that one is respected for whom and what one is. The result is a severe existential crisis. How indeed does one make sense of it all when the taken-for-granted assumptions and beliefs that one uses to make sense of the world are suddenly ripped out from under one and rendered totally invalid? Most of us can survive and function if just one or two of cherished beliefs are invalidated, but not if all of them are destroyed simultaneously. No wonder why major crises more often than not fuel intense feelings of fear and paranoia.