Dealing with Our Death Drive


According to Freud, inside each of us is a counterintuitive desire to die instead of live.

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In my last column on April Fool’s Day, I discussed the wisdom of Shakespeare’s fools. Often, they tried to point out the self-destructive actions of those in power. Take King Lear, who foolishly chose the 2 daughters who did not love him over the 1 that did.

Earlier in history, the death drive was reflected in the mythical Greek God Thanatos, the personification of Death. Fortunately, Thanatos could be tricked.

Later, Freud, in his 1920 book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, explained this as our death drive, a counterintuitive desire to die instead of live. It can be directed internally or externally. It is the counterpart of the life instinct called Eros, and compels humans, often unconsciously, to undue risk and self-destructiveness instead of love, cooperation, and other prosocial behaviors.

Counterintuitive ideas are always harder to appreciate. Though so much of Freudian theory has been criticized, this death drive can perhaps be seen in many places, including suicidality in our patients. Moreover, I would think that unconscious guilt and trauma triggers can intensify it.

In the daily news, it seems to be making its presence known lately in newsworthy situations, though it can be expressed in small matters of life. Do we not see it in the resistance of those not getting vaccinated or using safe masking? In our climate, do we not see it in our behavior that increasingly threatens the viability of the earth for humans?

In the daily news, perhaps Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has its death drive aspects. Why invade and risk the retaliation of NATO and the US, where Eros may fuse with Thanatos in response? This scenario reminds me a little of Hitler’s inadvisable decision to invade on 2 fronts when he was winning World War II. And then there is the increasing brutality of the Russian soldiers.

Or, take the Oscars. Before winning Best Actor, Will Smith first slaps the moderator over a questionable joke about his wife. Or the mass shooting in Sacramento over the weekend.

If this drive is so ubiquitous and potentially destructive, what can be done about it? If, as I suggested on April Fool’s Day, that the Shakespearian fool acts like a psychotherapist, perhaps there is a major role for psychiatry. Since self-awareness of this counterintuitive drive is so difficult, we may need to:

-Educate the public;

-Positively reframe self-destructive thoughts in our patients;

-Advise the powers-to-be; and

-Choose life and Eros.

The future of humanity may depend on our ability to do so well enough.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.

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