Our Instincts Are Who We Are: Finding Our Way in the Mess of Civilization

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Recently I reread Fernando Pessoa’s  “The Book of Disquiet.” (If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.) In a later chapter, the narrator said something that struck me. To paraphrase, he stated that every emotion we have has an instinctual basis. This seems obvious on its surface. For example, if I feel angry, it could be that my body is telling me that I’m hungry or that I am being threatened. 

But as I’ve contemplated this passage over the last few days, that statement has wider implications for me. For much of my youth, I subscribed to a liberal, romantic view of life. I believed in elevated emotions like truth and love and compassion. I believed as MLK once said, that the arc of the universe bent toward justice. Underneath this all, I believed that there was a sense of order in life, that things happened for a reason, that our lives were storybooks that were neatly unfolding to make sense. 

My views have changed as I’ve gotten older, and have recently crystallized. I don’t discuss it much because I think many may be anathema to it. Humans are animals with bodies. Our bodies are designed for two things: survival and procreation. All our bodily functions and emotions are geared to those two things. Or to bluntly, sex and survival are what keep us going. 

I realize there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this statement. Freud shocked the world with his emphasis on sex and the violent side of humanity. He saw aggression as an essential part of who we are. Freud got a lot wrong, but as a general overview, he was very much right. We are aggressive animals seeking sex, food, and safety. And if someone threatens our safety, our emotions react and we often act out with violent words or actions. Quoting Freud from his book “Civilization and its Discontents,” 

…​​men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. Who in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien. Anyone who calls to mind the atrocities committed during the racial migrations or the invasions of the Huns, or by the people known as Mongols under Jenghiz Khan and Tamerlane, or at the capture of Jerusalem by the pious Crusaders, or even, indeed, the horrors of the recent World War — anyone who calls these things to mind will have to bow humbly before the truth of this view. 

This is not a liberal, idealized version of humanity. For me, it strips a lot of those buzzwords like “justice” and “love” of their meaning. It is an ugly view of human life, but perhaps a more truthful one than the lofty words of civilization around us. 

But there are nobler instincts. For every ugly act happening in New York City happening right now, there are also plenty of acts of kindness and love going on in the world. Every day around us people are loving and generous. Those emotions are instinctual too. Yes, we are violent, selfish, sex-crazed beings. But we are also capable of more: love, kindness, compassion. I realize that religion isn’t very popular with my generation or with younger people, but personally, I have come full circle with regard to religion. I see religion as humanity’s way of trying to make sense of all the chaos and violence, to reinforce the better angels of our nature. But because we are human, all too human, most of us use religion to puff up our egos, to feel powerful and better than others, to act violently whether emotionally or physically against “the others” we hate and threaten us. 

In my mind, a true religion starts with wrestling with the evil in each and every one of us. It is acknowledging the anger and hatred in one’s heart, acknowledging all the petty, violent, and sexual thoughts one has, and how very self-centered we all are, how we first and foremost think about ourselves and our own needs. Once we can face our “shadows,” we can be a little different. We can choose to highlight our better instincts, and hopefully, mitigate the ugliness in us. 

Unfortunately, this takes a tremendous amount of self-awareness and work, which means that most of us cannot engage in that work. It means to let go of being anyone of importance. It means not feeding into our petty anger and the constant stream of sexual feelings we all have. (I am by no means a puritan with regard to sex. It’s a wonderful thing and people should have lots of it. But I do think our modern society of sex and pornography serves to overstate its importance with regard to the contentment of the human soul.) It takes vigilance as well. Our ugliness always wants to encroach on us, day by day, minute by minute. Power is seductive. Sex is seductive. The ego is seductive. Money is seductive. Vanity is seductive. And none of us are immune to their charms. 

I believe this is a losing game, however. Humans have always been ugly. War, murder, rape, greed have always been a part of us. So why try to be better? I don’t know if there is a perfectly satisfactory answer to that. My answer is that living in the realm of love and compassion just makes us happier beings. To be generous and kind and love just feels better than sitting in the muck of all the other emotions we feel. And the key for me is to try and reinforce those feelings second by second. Perhaps living that way can spread if not to the world at large, but maybe to the people in your life who are struggling and need your kindness. 

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