01.03.2008

More or Less Alive

Striving for the perfect balance between Eros and Thanatos is the very stuff of life, says Eric Harrison.

Striving for the perfect balancebetween Eros and Thanatos is the very stuff of life,says Eric Harrison.

Tobe alive seems to be very different from being dead.Yet, when we look more closely at our bodies, the situationis not so clear cut at all. Millions of cells withinus die every day, and millions are born. Even more intriguingis that most of these cells are not "us",not even the mitochondria that are our internal powerhouses.These millions of tiny animals and plants have entirelydifferent genetic material from us, and yet we wouldn'tlast a single minute without them.

Furthermore, we rely on these multitudes of us andthem to die at exactly the right time, with no delays.There are no old folks homes within our bodies to carefor unproductive, geriatric cells to gently fade away.For the greater good, we demand that they die and getrecycled as soon as they put down their tools. To bealive involves a constant interplay of opposing biologicalforces whose work is to maintain balance, or "homeostasis".For example, adrenalin stimulates us into action eachmorning until signals tell us that enough is enough.Then negative feedback, which we tend to notice as fatigue,checks that rising adrenalin, and pulls us back towardsbalance. These on-off processes within our bodies arecontinually calibrating levels of blood sugar, acidity,muscle tension, temperature, and so on.

Similarly, with life and death in the body. Growthis not "good" and decay "bad". Theykeep each other in check. The birth of millions of newcells daily through cell division is obviously a goodthing. Otherwise, we would soon wither away. Yet, unbridledgrowth is a horror. We call it cancer. These are thecells that know the secret of eternal youth. They canremain juveniles forever, and continue to breed likerabbits. Well behaved cells, on the other hand, knowtheir age and die off as soon as they are no longerneeded. They press their own internal suicide buttonfor the good of the larger organism, or are persuadedto do so by other forces in the body.

This process is called "apoptosis" or "programmedcell death". The Latin word literally means "fallingaway", the way a leaf drops from a tree. In otherwords, for me to be alive relies on millions of bitsof me dying (and other bits being born) each day. Weneed death to live at all.

Centuries ago, this truth was illustrated by paintingsand drawings of "Death and the Maiden". Thesedepicted a leering skeleton embracing and being embracedby a buxom wench. These are not the eternal enemieswe assume them to be. At a gut level, they actuallydesire and need each other. Similarly, Freud describedlife as a continual psychological struggle between Erosand Thanatos, between the lifeforce and the impulsetowards death, between the urge to activity and theurge to rest.

Sometimes Eros is high. We want to take on the world,particularly when we are young. At other times, we justwant to curl up and watch TV. Furthermore, neither impulseis inherently good or bad, although both are disastrousin excess.

Eros is good, but too much of it is as dangerous asa methamphetamine high. We also need a comfortable familiaritywith Thanatos, with rest and inactivity, with lettinggo and letting things "fall away", to havea good life.

We can easily see Thanatos and Eros, Death and theMaiden, playing out their dramas within us. Eros isfuelled by dopamine, the "anticipation and reward"hormone. This gives us the kind of enthusiasm and focusthat stimulates us into action and is essential forany kind of achievement.

While it is obviously good to strive for our goals,too much dopamine can make us restless and confused,chasing a glorious future that never arrives. The antidoteto this hyperactivity is beta-endorphin, the "sitback and enjoy what you've got" hormone that isthe agent of Thanatos.

To "live for the present and take each day asit comes" has much to recommend it. Just like dopamine,though, beta-endorphin in excess can also have its downsides: lethargy, depression, and a poor, sick old age.

In reality, we are rarely well balanced between Erosand Thanatos. We tend to have an excess of one or theother, usually the latter. One problem with being tooalive is that it often hurts. Little children, burstingwith Eros, are acutely exposed to pain and disappointment:"After laughter comes tears."

Children are frequently howling because they feel boththe good and the bad too intensely. After the ecstasy,the crash. Yet after a few minutes, Eros will get themon their feet again, as enthusiastic as ever, racingjoyfully towards the next crash.

As adults, we typically become more calculating andfearful. Rather than risk disappointment, we stop trying.We choose to be less alive rather than face being hurtyet again. At any age, we become cynical and world weary.Ennui sets in. We make jokes about chocolate and beerbeing better than sex and relationships.

People become less than fully alive in many differentways. Those who have been severely traumatised can becomeemotionally numb forever. The rest of us can easilydull our feelings with food or drugs, mindless entertainmentor the pursuit of money and possessions. So long aswe are cheerful, friendly and harmless, no one mindsif we are devoid of any real feeling. And if other peopleseem to like us, why should we care?

Yet when this strategy no longer satisfies, we hearpeople complain, "I feel only half alive."Or "You call this a life? This is not living. It'sjust existing!" To make matters worse, we can allremember days that were more bright and beautiful thantoday. We were all young once. At least the music wasso much better then.

If we feel only half alive, then coffee and other stimulantswill certainly give us a temporary zing. Advertiserswill try to persuade us that the latest herb from theAndes, or even an electric duster, will make us insanelyhappy. Even a completely unfounded hope will stimulatedopamine, the "anticipation and reward" hormone,and lift our spirits for a while.

Of course, the dopamine effect rapidly wears off andcan't be relied on. Researchers into happiness usuallysay that our baseline capacity to enjoy life or notis relatively fixed. To suddenly win the lottery, orlose a leg, doesn't make us that much happier or sadder.We soon adjust to our familiar level. But this is onlyhalf the truth.

How alive (or dead) we feel is remarkably stable regardlessof circumstances, but it is still fluid. It is graduallychanging one way or the other at a glacial pace. Ourhabitual level has been established by thousands ofautomatic responses to situations in the past. We maintainthat level by repeating our responses from last time.This gives us a sense of comfort, safety and "rightness",but it does have a price.

If we habitually respond with new events with somethinglike that open hearted, unguarded sensitivity that wesee in little children, we can continue to feel aliveright into old age. Our natural relationship to theworld will be one of Eros, or love. Conversely, if wehabitually respond with caution and reserve, we graduallylose our capacity to feel much at all. Our responseswill be governed by Thanatos, or fear.

Fortunately, if our habits are not serving us well,they can be changed, albeit with difficulty. The firststep is become more conscious of our automatic reactionsin particular situations. If we can "see"how we react, and how that makes us feel, we can chooseto be more alive and open if we wish. We can chooseto feel more, even if it hurts. We can't completelyoverrule the conditioning in our body and mind, butwe can always make yet another little adjustment forthe better.

Unfortunately, we can't just rewrite our thoughts.Habits are embedded in the body long before we are selfaware enough to know what is happening. If we habituallyrespond to the world with worry and suspicion, we arelikely to frown, clench our teeth, hold our breaths,hunch our shoulders and knot up in the stomach so oftenthat our posture reflects our character. A frozen, lockedup body will guarantee a fearful response to the world,regardless of our thoughts. Fortunately, all these effectscan be ameliorated. It is not hard to smile, softenour faces, loosen up our breathing, drop our shoulders,and so on. There is nothing complicated about this,but we need to do it thousands and thousands of timesuntil the old pattern gives way to the new. Changinghabits is a physical training, like learning an instrumentor playing a sport. It is quite possible to feel morealive. We just have to know what to do and keep at it.

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