|L. A. Lakers fans, after a big win.|
Where we are starting with this post: a consideration of some unified theories of human behavior.
In the middle: an explication of that under-recognized and unappreciated force of human existence: The Life Force.
When it comes to theories of human behavior, it always drives me crazy when people say that what humans really want out of life should be understood as just "pleasure" or "happiness."
You hear the first most often when people are talking about motivation, the idea being that humans are primarily motivated by the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
You hear the second when people are trying to give big psychology theories about the nature of desire and its role in our lives. There's a whole new mini-cottage industry now of books about happiness and how to achieve it.
But I'm just not buying either of these. Can't you want things knowing they'll bring you displeasure and unhappiness? Think about the last time you broke up with someone, or were broken up with, romantically. In the immediate aftermath, couldn't you have a burning, itchy, crazy desire to call that person, even while knowing that calling them will make you not just miserable but also wildly unhappy?
And I've talked about this before, but can't you sensibly want children even if you are convinced by the studies that show taking care of them is boring and displeasurable and parents are less happy overall than non-parents? If you're thinking about having kids, are pleasure and happiness really the only things you're considering? It seems bizarre to me to think that they would.
Anyway, there is one basic desire, one burning human drive, that these theories always seem to me to leave out. That is: the need to feel alive. I call it The Life Force.
The way the Life Force manifests itself in our modern western culture, when your Life Force is high, you're engaged. You're full of appetites. You want to do stuff: make lentil soup, improve your golf game, learn German. You have a burning desire not only to be alive, but to imprint yourself on the world, to make things happen.
When your Life Force is low, you don't see the point of living. You don't care much what happens. You have no need, or you're afraid, to exert your force, to exert your identity, on the world around you.
If you're at all in thrall to the harmony myth of human nature, you might think that The Life Force is good and its absence is bad. But I don't think that can be right. Because much as The Life Force can be the amazing power of creativity, it can also be the insane passion of rage, or the rabid desire for destruction.
If you're angry at someone and you sink into sadness and depression that is Low Life Force. But if you lash out in a rage, and shout, and throw dishes, that is actually High Life Force: you're imprinting yourself on the world, being you, and making things happen. It's just that those things are bad.
High Life Force might be good for you, but it might be bad for the rest of the world. Because the desire to make things happen, it doesn't really distinguish between the good and the bad. It just wants.
The Life Force involves wanting things, and it is often disturbing to me the way wanting things feels good. Because as we all know, wanting things can be as frustrating as hell. But then when you're faced with the opposite -- with NOT wanting things -- you're like Oh, wait, sorry, can you bring back the wanting please?
The desire to eat more food than is good for you: frustrating. Insufficient desire to eat enough food than is good for you: heartbreaking. Did you ever read stories by cancer patients who've lost their appetite and need marijuana just to be able to eat at all? It makes insufficient desire seem like the saddest thing in the world. Same thing for sex. If you think wanting is bad, think about not wanting for about five minutes. You'll change your mind.
In my theory of The Life Force, the desire, the need, to have The Force, and thus feel that want and desire, is basic and doesn't come from something else. The problem arises when you have it, and now you have this need to make things happen. It's a need that can sometimes be met in a constructive way, but not always.
Everyone's familiar with the pattern when it comes to sex. When you want sex, you feel alive, even if you also feel frustrated. And then if you get to have sex, you're making things happen, and that feels fantastic. After, your Life Force is dissipated, especially if you've had an orgasm. Orgasms: very pleasurable, but they do not add to your life force. After, you have to wait a little for the secret vial in your heart to replenish itself.
The way The Life Force functions in a consumer culture like ours is particularly interesting, because in that culture, shopping mimics the Life Force pattern of sex without the attendant difficulties. You set out: you're wanting, you feel alive. You buy: you're making things happen, and it feels good. After, instead of the dissipation from orgasm, you have clothes/shoes/toys/food to bring home and enjoy. The Life Force just settles itself down very nicely. When you think about it that way, it's not surprising that the average credit card debt in the US is almost 16,000 dollars.
But getting back to the rioting. I don't watch sports, but it is not hard for me to picture the Life Force pattern of important sporting events. Was there ever more of a context for wanting and for feeling alive? But since you're watching, there's not much outlet for making things happen.
If your team loses, your Life Force dissipates and you feel like crap and you have to wait for time to pass for your Life Force to come back. But if your team wins, your Life Force goes through the roof: BAM!. What are you going to do with all that? You've suddenly got to make things happen.
And if you're with eight million other people in exactly the same mood, and you're out on the street, does it surprise you that those things include destroying things and setting cars on fire? Well, it doesn't surprise me.
The pleasure and happiness theories don't do so well explaining the winning rioters. Destroying cars isn't on most people's bucket list, and no one expects it to bring peace and contentment.
But the Life Force theory of human nature makes the whole thing very obvious and clear.