My treasured colleague, Tom Ellis, wrote an impassioned post protesting simple-minded thinking about Whitney Houston’s death. I, too, am irked by glib media interpretations of the behavior of stars. I find it challenging to fathom the complexity of individual patients who courageously confide their inner life in psychotherapy; I am loath to pretend to understand anyone I observe only from afar. And diving into the murky territory of death wishes in my part is a prime example of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. Far more foolish than angelic, I proceed.
I agree with my colleague in some respects. We can kill ourselves in the quest for pleasure — witness heart-stopping doses of cocaine. I am partial to the idea that addictive drugs “hijack” the normal brain reward systems. And there is no reward greater than escape from unbearable pain. Karl Menninger viewed nonsuicidal self-injury as “anti-suicidal” behavior. Cutting, banging or burning oneself can reduce emotional distress dramatically. Such behavior appears “self-destructive” only to the outside observer; to the person engaging in the behavior, it is self-preservative, a way of muddling through to live another day. The same might be said of addiction.
Penchant for self-destruction
I am less sanguine than my colleague about a thoroughgoing constructive orientation in human nature. He writes, “…All of us have the same basic agenda to find happiness and manage physical and psychic pain the best we can.” I find myself more sympathetic than he with Freud’s view of divided forces in our nature, constructive and destructive. Freud gave us a naturalized version of the age-old battle between good and evil, an enduring contest. I find ample evidence that destructiveness can be self-directed.
Granted, we are the products of evolution, and survival is the engine of evolution. But we should be humbled by the fact that well over 99 percent of species that ever lived are now extinct. Evolution does not necessarily lead to progress, much less to perfection. Perhaps we humans are not unflawed in our orientation toward life. We are hardly single minded, as Freud well understood.
Our capacity for gaining knowledge through science is stunning, but we also are developing increasingly sophisticated, life-threatening technology. Prescient about the human species’ capacity for self-annihilation and the anxiety that goes with it, Freud wrote before the advent of nuclear weapons. I wish our sociological knowledge were keeping pace with our dangerous technological advances. We humans might be unique among species in our seeming penchant for self-destruction. Above all, we need to learn how to cooperate before we join the other 99 percent (not the non-super-rich, the extinct).
I have no idea what was on Whitney Houston’s mind in the hours, days, weeks, months and years before her death. And I have no idea if Freud’s idea about the death instinct is best regarded as crazy or as something we should take very seriously as we witness horrific destructiveness across the globe. Our consciousness is misleading; we are aware of a tiny fragment of our mental activity, and we have little idea what our brains are up to. I think we should be more modest in our conjectures about others and, as Freud showed us, even about our own motivations. And we must be careful about generalizing about addicted persons or any other group in light of enormous individual differences — another engine of evolution.
I am not ready to throw up my hands in the face of destructiveness and self-destructiveness. I cannot fathom solutions to global problems. I cling to one uncommonly wise young woman’s reply when I asked patients in an educational group, “What gives you hope?” She replied, “I can be surprised!” But I take heart in small-scale victories. Day in and day out in this clinic, we help patients grapple more successfully with their self-destructiveness.