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The Two Impulses: An Original Psychological Theory about Suffering
Elbert Hubbard, American editor and author, said “If you suffer, thank God! -- it is a sure sign that you are alive.” Suffering is a crucial component of life, a universal, inevitable, driving component. It is so inherently human; as Lama Govinda, founder of the order of the Arya Maitreya Mandala and an expositor of Tibetan Buddhism, puts it—“an experience that is common to all sentient beings.” (Bowker 237) As soon we find a shallow refuge for our agony, we realize it is an only an uneasy truce of denial for our fragile souls. The suffering never stops, until the heart does. We are magnificent creatures, capable of withstanding so much anguish, amplified and magnified by every faltering step we take. Suffering is an emotional response that is comprised of negative emotions like agony, resulting from both internal and external stimuli. Suffering is such a universal feeling that almost every philosophical and theological tradition has attempted to explain it (Bowker 5). What I propose is a new approach to understanding suffering and its causes, involving the fulfillment and frustration of two impulses—the impulse to control and the impulse to protect. This theory is taking more of psychiatric or psychological approached as opposed to the philosophical or theological perspective more commonly used in the study of suffering.
This is not a delving into the origin of suffering, as many theological traditions try to elucidate. For example, the entire Book of Job in the Jewish tradition is dedicated to Job’s quest to find out why he, of all of the people on Earth, must suffer. Even though he is an “innocent, upright, and God-fearing” man, the “one thing [he] dreaded came to [him].”(The Book of Job) He spends all his time asking God why these things happen to him, but ultimately does not receive an answer. Some people experience more suffering than others, but that is not explained under these two instincts. This theory exclusively explains the cause of suffering, but does not attempt to illuminate its origins. Just as the Buddhists believed, instead of trying to understand who determines the suffering, it is more paramount to deal with it. They accept suffering with no pretence or deception (Bowker 237). Though they do identify the cause of suffering as “thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed,” they never mention as to why some people are more attached than others (Bowker 239). This theory is parallel—it offers a cause for the suffering, but not an origin.
Human beings have many instincts and impulses, but there are two basic instincts that the others are based on. One instinct is to protect and love. The other is the instinct for domination and control. The order in which these instincts are applied is dependant upon which one is more pervasive in each individual’s personalities. Some people might be more eager to love, while others are more aggressive and wish to dominate. Although they exist simultaneously, there is always one more prevalent than the other. Each of us applies these two instincts to various objects and scenarios in the world, and suffering is the result of one of these instincts not being fulfilled. On one side, the frustration of the first instinct is often seen as a lack of love. Conversely, the frustration of the second instinct is perceived as a lack of security. The frustration of either leads to suffering, because it is a state different from the natural state of being. The natural state of the being is one when both instincts can be completely fulfilled. If one can't give love, one suffers. If one can't take control one suffers.
For our purposes, pain and suffering shall be defined as separate phenomenon. Pain is more or less a physical sensation, defined as a “basic bodily sensation induced by a noxious stimulus, received by naked nerve endings, characterized by physical discomfort (as pricking, throbbing, or aching), and typically leading to evasive action.” (Miller) It is a physiological response to an external stimulus and can actually be nonexistent in certain people. Congenital Insensitivity to Pain with Anhidrosis is a neurological disease in which people cannot feel pain, heat or the accompanying sensations (Mukund 133). The lack of pain in the patients with this disease demonstrates that pain only has physical basis because it can be easily taken away by other physical reasons. Nonetheless, those patients without pain can still suffer.
Certain types of pain can be mitigated or even eliminated with medications and therapies. For example, the popular painkiller Vicodin, a combination of acetaminophen and hydrocodone, works as a chemical solution to the chemical problem of pain. Acetaminophen halts the production of prostaglandins which otherwise cause pain (Vicodin Addiction). Hydrocodone works by binding to the pain receptors in the brain to deaden the sensation of pain (Vicodin Addiction). Suffering, on the other hand, is completely inevitable and is felt by everyone. Because suffering has an emotional basis, it is far more complex.
The emotional suffering can be so powerful that it causes physical pain. Pyschosomatic diseases are illnesses that have physical symptoms because of mental causes. For example, psoriasis, eczema, stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart disease can all be psychosomatic diseases because the levels of stress in the brain can influence the cardiovascular and immune system (Servan-Schreiber 1077). Somatoform diseases are an even more vivid display of the power of emotional suffering. These disorders have physical symptoms suggesting a medical disorder. However, somatoform disorders represent a psychiatric condition because the physical symptoms present in the disorder cannot be fully explained by a medical disorder or substance use(Bradfield 327). Anxiety disorders and mood disorders commonly produce physical symptoms. Although rare, emotional trauma can also have physical effects. There was girl who witnessed her mother being brutally blinded. Consequently, when she woke up the next day, she was also blind even though doctors could not find anything physically wrong with her eyesight (Bradfield 330. Her suffering was so horrific that her body responded to it in a physical method.
Suffering, by definition is emotional (Dictionary.com). There is a natural connection between physical pain and emotional suffering, but it is only emotional suffering that ultimately matters. Suffering tends to be more of a long term condition while physical pain is can be more temporary, because it has simpler. Because suffering is emotional, it leaves a deeper impression in an individual’s life.
Comparable to the two instincts is the anima and animus conceived by Carl Jung. However, every person only has either an anima or an animus. The anima was the feminine side while the animus was the masculine side and each person had the side that was opposite to their gender (McManus). Therefore, men have an anima but women have an animus. Regardless of sex, all people have the same goal—to integrate their anima or animus into the rest of themselves. Jung believed that the anima or animus helped direct an individual to the “unconscious unified Self”. Though forming a connection with either the anima or the animus was one of the most difficult steps to psychological growth, it was also the most rewarding (Jung 76). Oppositely, failure to recognize this aspect of the personality would mean a backlash from the unconscious, where anima and animus primarily resided. For example, a man might deliberately assert the negative sides of his masculine self, such as aggression, to control his anima from emerging. Alternatively, a woman who refuses her masculine self might find it subconsciously emerging, being too competitive, for instance (Jung 75).
There are obvious differences between Jung’s thoughts and the theory of the two impulses, such as the fact that every person has both impulses, as opposed either anima or animus. Nonetheless, the impulse of control is comparable to animus because domination is more historically a male attribute (Nuemann). On the other hand, the impulse to love, like the animus is more feminine and associate with maternal feelings. The terms "masculine" and "feminine" are not used, not as personal sex-linked characteristics, but as symbolic expressions. The symbolism of "masculine" and "feminine" is archetypal and therefore transpersonal; in the various cultures concerned, it is erroneously projected upon persons as though they carried its qualities. In reality “every individual is a psychological hybrid.” (Nuemann) It is one of the classic complications that occurs in individual psychology—that in all cultures the integrity of the personality is violated when it is identified with either the masculine or the feminine side of the symbolic principle of opposites (Nuemann). It is paramount not to concentrate on the terminology, but its representative nature. The animus and anima are symbolic are more symbolic, while the two impulses should be taken more literally.
In the same way a refusal to admit to either animus or anima causes psychological turmoil, an uneven fulfilling of the two impulses also results in internal conflict and ultimately suffering. The equilibrium, the parts of every person that are either love or control impulses, is initially determined by genetic predisposition in addition to societal conditioning. This conditioning encourages some people to experience one more and suppress the other to a greater degree. At any point in a person’s life, this equilibrium is different. Biologically, human bodies are always fighting for homeostasis (Physiological Homeostasis). This equilibrium is a sort of psychological homeostasis, a perfect balance of both impulses, depending on the past and current events in a person’s life, along with the genetic inclinations. The impulses are not naturally at odds. They are not fighting to gain a majority in any one person—there is simply an equilibrium that is determined by different circumstances in a person’s life. Unless one impulse is surpassing its allotted space in a person, it will not fight against the other impulse. However, as certain events exit and enter our lives, the way we interact with the world must change too, resulting in constant shifts in our equilibrium. As soon as the impulses reach a certain equilibrium, the equilibrium changes once again, so the impulses are once again at the wrong levels. This change—this imbalance—is what intrinsically causes conflicts about identity. This discontent with self can be a type of suffering, resulting from a lack of understanding of a person’s impulses.
This constant battle to discover equilibrium and its subsequent discontent is what causes us to progress and continually improve ourselves. This kind of suffering can be productive and lead to not necessarily the cessation of suffering, but at least some degree of mitigation.
Other than internal conflict, additional types of suffering are caused by external factors that lead to unfulfillment and frustration of the impulses. Anytime a new event or person enters a life, it resides in a part in this person’s mind, and the mind creates a catalog of these phenomena. Eventually, as time passes, they turn into memories. However, as they enter and occupy space in the mind, the person is able to apply both impulses to that specific phenomenon. Once it enters a person’s mind, it cannot be completely removed. People never entirely forget memories, and even if they forget some part of the memory, its effect still remains. Even patients with amnesia are still subconsciously affected by those memories (Postma).
An extreme case of the frustration of the impulses is Jean-Dominque Bauby, the once the popular editor-in-chief of French Elle, who suffered from a stroke that resulted in locked-in syndrome. His entire body was paralyzed except for his left eyelid. Using only this eyelid he managed to pen a book called “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”, an insightful window into his mind. Throughout the book, he mentions some physical discomfort but doesn’t seem to “suffer” in the common sense of the word, with agony and misery. So why does Bauby suffer? Simply because he is in pain from his “locked-in syndrome”? Although there are times that his appendages physically hurt, that is not the main reason. His physical condition impedes his ability to interact with the world at large, his only connection between his thoughts and the outside world being a board to spell his words (Bauby 39). This state of being is far from being the state of being natural to humans—a state where they can realize and fulfill their impulses. In this paralyzed body, Bauby has very limited ability to control or love anything or anyone. He can only apply to them to his “memor[ies] etched with the precision of a laser beam.” Because he can’t apply them to real life, his memories “don’t have the luxury of evaporating. Instead they pile up, one upon another.” (Bauby 49) Perhaps this occurs to only him and not others because he still feels the impulses but he cannot actually act upon them. This consequent inability to fulfill any of his impulses causes him his suffering.
Most suffering is not created by an absolute inability to pursue both impulses. It’s usually caused by primarily one impulse with a little bit of the other. Loss, for instance, is both. Material loss is more of the frustration of the impulse to control, while loss of life is more an unfulfilling of the impulse to love. Despite the fact that ““culturally and behaviorally grounded conceptions of ownership may not coincide with explicitly legalistic conceptions,” (Rudmin 257) ownership, in the most primitive definition, is absolute domination. When we lose things we own, our second instinct, the one to control is frustrated. Nonetheless, a person can create emotional attachments comparable to love to the things they own, so the instinct to love is also unfulfilled. The reverse is true for loss of life. Because life is loved, suffering caused by death leads to the frustration of the love instinct. There is still an insignificant portion of the suffering that is a result of the domination instinct because nearly all people seek to control others at some point. In most cases the pain caused by the second instinct is negligible in situations of death. When a mother loses her child, the heartache she feels can be primarily attributed to discrepancy in what she originally had the ability to apply to her impulses to and what she has the ability to apply her impulse to now. When her child was alive, she applied a large portion of her impulses to that child but she only has the memory to apply her impulses too. This inability to fully realize her instincts creates her suffering.
Fear is exclusively in the realm of the second impulse because the origin of fear lies in the inability to control what a person fears. The assumption is the object of fear has the ability to harm the person. The ability to control it means the person could stop the object of fear from hurting them. The incapacity to dominate the object that may cause an individual pain is what creates the fear and the consequent suffering. Phobias, on the other hand, are twisting of the normal fear response. The fear is directed toward an object or situation that does not present a real danger. Often people who have phobias have anxiety disorders explained by biochemistry and therefore phobias can be disregarded (Fear).
There are many similarities between anxiety and fear. Anxiety is fear about the future, and the inability to control outcomes. Unlike fear, anxiety does not necessarily have to be directed toward a specific object or person, it can be a general emotion towards the future. The future is unknown, and therefore cannot be controlled. Anxiety about an exam, for example, causes the test-taker to suffer because they cannot control fulfill their impulse to control the grade and do well. When one prepares extensively for the test, one feels less anxious because studying is a kind of indirect control over the outcome.
Rejection and failure are both a frustration of the second instinct. Like anxiety, rejection and failure are the inability to control favorable results. Anxiety pertains to the future while both rejection and failure are related to an event that has already occurred. The suffering is caused by two types of lack of control. The first is the event is in the past and therefore cannot be changed. The second type is the regret that they had not done something else to change this outcome. Aggregately, this results in frustration of the instinct to control.
Loneliness is a peculiar type of suffering because it requires interaction of two or more individuals. Ivan Illych, protagonist and main sufferer of Leo Tolstoy’s book “Death of Ivan Illcyh” suffered from loneliness. Before the symbolic suffering of actual injury, "in 1880, the hardest year of Ivan Ilych's life… even his father did not consider it his duty to help him. Ivan Ilych felt himself abandoned by everyone." (Tolstoy 113) As social creatures, being alone is counterintuitive and consequently distressing to us. There is no one to apply the love instinct to, so we suffer. Through conditioning, we instinctually know that there should be others, and when there is not, our protection instincts are being frustrated. A kind of loneliness can also be a result of loss, also suffering. Gerasim, Ivan’s sick servant, became so important that Ivan “felt his presence such a comfort that he did not want to let him go." (Tolstoy 136) Because Ivan had already applied his love instinct to Gerasim, it is difficult to let him go. Loneliness can be caused by the initial knowledge that there must be a certain degree of the love instinct being fulfilled or the loss of someone the love instinct is being applied on.
Whether it is loss, fear, anxiety, rejection, loneliness or another type of suffering, everyone experiences it (Bowker 237). Just as Buddhists believed, suffering is a fact of life, something to be accepted. Nonetheless, a person who must suffer is not necessarily an unhappy person. Just as suffering and pain are not the same thing, satisfaction and happiness are also not the same. Satisfaction is “the fulfillment or gratification of a desire, need, or appetite.”(Dictionary.com) It is reaching a certain level. However, happiness is completely devoid of a certain standard—it is a state of being. Happiness is a binary condition. And while the inability to satisfy the equilibrium of impulses might lead to a discontent, an individual can still be happy, because happiness is the “quality of a whole human life” (Aristotle’s Ethics) independent of daily fluxes in emotion. Even after a life of suffering, Ivan dies at peace because he goes with the “conviction that his life had been a good one…” (Tolstoy 154) Aristotle has said, “One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.” (Aristotle’s Ethics) Because it is not circumstantial, the two impulses do not affect it in the same way it can cause suffering. Suffering and happiness are not mutually exclusive. A life with suffering can still be a life with happiness.