How our death instinct sharpens our awareness of being alive

Our perception of risk influences our vital strategies, inducing us to simulate our own demise over and again

These are uncertain times. The pace of change has accelerated so that the dynamics of our interconnected world exceed linear models. It is clear that we are vulnerable, not only to familiar threats that are difficult to predict, but also to less familiar ones that we can’t name, but which we should be prepared for. Put bluntly, in the words of the sociologist Ulrich Beck, scientific and technological advances have generated a precarious way of life, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not. This he describes in his 1986 book, Risk Society, published the year of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

What will our response be to a disastrous contingency? Will our systems crash and our defenses collapse? Will we be paralyzed by fear and incapacitated by trauma? Or could we, on the contrary, protect ourselves from the blow, recover from the disaster and adapt to a new situation, perhaps emerging even stronger than before? We perceive risk as an attitude whose purpose is to evoke the future in the present, so that we can take action now and prevent undesirable events in the future. The philosopher Ian Hacking points out that it is not just a component of our everyday reality, but a way of thinking; it is the notion of turning something problematic into something manageable, which underpins a different approach.

Would it be possible to think of risk in terms of life and not death? What would happen if risk entailed a certain way of being and established a horizon? “Risking one’s life is one of the most beautiful expressions in our language,” the philosopher and psychoanalyst Anne Dufourmantelle wrote in her book In Praise of Risk, adding: “Does it necessarily mean facing death and surviving? Or rather, is there, in life itself, a secret device, a tune, that is exceptionally capable of displacing existence towards that first line of battle that we call desire – because risk opens up an unknown space?”

According to Dufourmantelle, it is hard to imagine that the certainty of the finite nature of our existence does not have a rebound effect. We know that one day, what we love, yearn for and have achieved will be erased. Risk, as a feeling, is less driven by actual odds and more driven by our instinctive and intuitive reaction to danger; it is an important ingredient in our behavior, since it determines a variety of decision-making strategies, and contributes to our ability to navigate an uncertain, complex and dangerous world in which the unpredictable prevails.

The perception of risk and our tolerance to it is a very personal calculation that operates under the influence of unconscious forces. Risk aversion can result in overestimating risk while risk-seeking can result in underestimating it. While the combination of the pandemic, financial vulnerability, and social and political demands are forcing more people than ever to act in risk-averse ways, the same factors have prompted others to jump in with both feet and take their chances.

In fact, in Western culture, we have long romanticized the idea of engaging in risky behavior that can border on the self-destructive. In novels, movies, and rock music, we fantasize about disrupting the system and living outside the box: quit your job and live off the grid; race fast cars or play Russian roulette with anything that society at large considers mature and sensible. If the Nietzschean ideal of rebellion was reinforced by Hollywood in the postwar period, its source undoubtedly comes from something much older – the early gadfly Socrates, or even Jesus himself.

The controversial notion of a death instinct, put forward by Freud in 1920, could help us make sense of all of this. Freud proposed that, in order to preserve the experience of being alive, the vital impulse must continually confront its opposite, and he attributed an essential characteristic to this instinct: the compulsion to repeat. In order to take possession of our own mortality, the death instinct induces us to simulate our own death in loops, to pursue risky situations, thus placing ourselves on the edge. This is also the root of the complacent and mechanical behaviors that we engage in to protect ourselves. The death instinct, so to speak, makes this stop and allows us to come to a place of stillness – to experience the feeling of being alive. The tightrope walker runs the risk of falling, especially when they try to stay one place, without moving a muscle. The risk of being suspended in the air is an acrobatic feat that we admire. It is a commitment not to resolve an act; an invitation to risk more, to harbor unbearable contradictions and make them come alive. “As an act, risk allows the chance to rule. We would like it to be voluntary, but it is generated in the dark, in the unverifiable, in the uncertain,” wrote Dufourmantelle, who died in 2017 while trying to save two children who were struggling to reach the coast of Pampelonne beach, near Saint-Tropez, France. She drowned. The two children survived.

David Dorenbaum is a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst.

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