I often say that we live in an age of trauma. There’s a simple way to think about that. The world is so messed up, we’re having to invent new forms of mental imbalance just to make sense of our own inability to cope with it. The world is so messed up it’s messing with our heads.
Take the example of “climate grief.” Last year, the APA wrote a report which began to recognize that natural disasters and climate change were having severe, lasting psychological effects. That might sound obvious to you — but it’s a brave step. We don’t think hard or often enough of how badly we’re affected by just existing in times like these. Climate grief, I’d wager, will come to be recognized as a defining psychological imbalance of the 21st century. But it’s hardly the only one.
Just scanning the headlines is one long exercise in trauma. Yes, trauma. You see, you’re quite wrong to say “but we have it better than anyone before in history!” Do we? People in the middle ages, the dark ages, the Roman empire, and so on, didn’t have access to the kind of information or knowledge we do — at the tap of a finger, anytime, anywhere. If the planet was about to melt down — they wouldn’t have had a clue. Nor did they have the power to make the planet melt down. It’s the fools’ logic of an economist to say we are the most fortunate people in history — materially, perhaps that’s true, in some meaningless way. We’re not robots, after all. But psychologically, emotionally, we are constantly confronted by relentless, addictive flood of information which confronts us with death, harm, and ruin. That’s the stuff of severe, lasting harm. It bruises and batters us deep down in the soul to constantly “read” about — know about, think about, suffer through — the death of the planet, democracy, society, the future. It takes a piece of us with it.
(And so we are all grieving today. I say that, and I think people recoil a little bit. But don’t you think it’s true? Every single person I know is in a kind of deep grief — even if they don’t quite know it themselves. Think about the signs. Trouble sleeping. Anxiety, depression, brooding.
An abiding sense of sorrow — letting go of what can never be. The process of mourning — letting go a past that can never be again.)
As a result of this age of profound, shattering grief, when we mourn for so many things that matter so much, all at once, is that we are suffering through what might be called a loss of libido. (Sorry — don’t roll your eyes, because I don’t mean it in the most superficial terms, though it shows up even there, which is that we’re having less and less sex.) I mean it in the sense of Eros, life-force, will to live, to flourish, to realize ourselves authentically, fully, and fiercely. (You see all those young people giving up on their dreams? All those old people who only seem to care about themselves? All those politicians having creepy affairs but not having the courage or purpose to give a damn about society? That’s all the loss of Eros.)
It is as if our will to live — to live fully, authentically, well — is vanishing — and is being replaced by a kind of destructive, ruinous impulse instead. At a social scale, maybe a global one, not an individual one. How, exactly? Look at skyrocketing suicide rates. Look at how neighbor is turning on neighbor. Look at how country after country is retreating into its little shell. Look at how we give up on the challenges before us — the big four — climate change, inequality, stagnation, and division. We shrug, or hand our heads in despair — but either way, it feels as if we are defeated. This is a loss of libido, of Eros, at a social scale. What is replacing it is Thanatos, the death instinct. The impulse to seek vengeance, to take revenge, to burn the house down, when you cannot climb to its top. Eros seeks transcendence — the loss of the self, it’s merging and connection into a larger whole (isn’t that what you’re after when you’re having sex, falling in love, or appreciating a beautiful sunset?). Thanatos seeks annihilation — the exaltation of the self, as the only being, even at the price of the destruction of the world.
The truth is that we are surrounded by Thanatos. Immersed in destruction, because we are permeated by self-preservation. It has come to define our lives in ways we don’t see, appreciate, understand, or know. Technology, social media, is a mighty force of Thanatos. Rather than offering us genuine self-transcendence — like we might feel watching a beautiful sunset — it offers us nothing but unbridled narcissism. The annihilation of the world, so we are the only ones left standing. Look at me! Like me! I am the one that matters most! Capitalism, too, which created this kind of technology, is Thanatos in pure form. It tells you are inherently worthless, so then you compete for status through consumption — you are basically competing to be the only one that matters, with more money, toys, prettier partners, and so on. Thanatos-as-capitalism says it doesn’t matter if it costs the whole world, democracy, the planet, the future, society, even your better self — as long as you feel like the only one who matters, because it told you never mattered to begin with.
But that is exactly how you get to a planet melting down, democracy dying, society in tatters, nations divided, and a world this troubled. Thanatos is the impulse to ruin, destroy, and pillage, so that one can stand atop the wreckage, it is the aggressive, egoistic, domineering force in us. So quite naturally, when we build institutions and norms and values upon it — where else can we end up?
The 21st century is going to be a difficult decade. But the most difficult thing about it, perhaps, will be the challenge of building a world on Eros, not Thanatos. It’s funny — today’s leftists are already trying. What is the obsessive focus on gender and sexuality if not Eros? But it is a small kind of Eros. Eros more properly understood is the instinct to merge, to be one, to lose one’s self. It’s what you feel dancing at a nightclub, or at the pub with your friends, or when you see a little child’s smile. It’s not just sex — though that’s what today’s left has, a little childishly, reduced it to.
A world built on Eros would prize the fulfillment of every being within it as it’s first priority. Every river, tree, insect, and person. Flowing, growing, humming — maturing. Do you see what I mean? A river’s potential is to flow, an insect’s to fly, a tree’s, to grow — and yours is to mature into grace, truth, decency, courage, defiance, wisdom, passion, insight, love. When you stand before the flowing river, you feel a sense of oneness, don’t you? So the more flowing rivers there are, the more self-transcendence there is for you, too. In this way, all things are linked through Eros — your possibility is to maximize the possibility of all things, just as their possibility is to maximize yours.
Thanatos, sadly, finds its truest expression in modern American life. Why don’t people give each other healthcare? Why would they prefer to make their neighbours beg for insulin online? Why don’t they stop each others’ kids getting massacred at school? America’s unbelievably, strangely, weirdly cruel culture and abusive society are expressions of Thanatos. Everyone is trying to climb over everyone else — so no one really goes anywhere but down. Society has become one giant arena for bruising, battering, bloody competition. It is lethal competition, too — lose that job, there goes your healthcare, bang! You’re dead. So through America’s example, we see the lesson of Thanatos versus Eros spelled out very, very clearly.
Thanatos seeks your self-preservation, even at the expense of the destruction of all things, all beings, everything. The whole universe could implode, and as long as you came out on top, Thanatos would say all was right and just and well. But Eros seeks the fulfillment of all things, through you, precisely so that self-transcendence can happen. If there are no rivers flowing or suns setting over them — what is there for you to transcend into? Do you see what I mean? It’s a subtle point, so think about it.
When people are threatened, Thanatos kicks in. The self-preservation impulse takes over. The fury and rage of destruction mount. Having build system after system of Thanatos — capitalism, technology, and so on — we have also built a world where people’s selfhood is constantly, perpetually, severely threatened, whether through a lack of money, resources, time, or care, and so, quite naturally, they are trying to preserve themselves, instead of gently transcend themselves.
What are we really grieving for these days, my friends? Is it just “climate grief” which tears through us? Not at all. We also grieve for, are anxious about, dread the loss of, democracy, society, the world, civilization, and the future. Yet grief is best understood as the loss of Eros, an opportunity to reach self-transcendence that is now gone forever — which one must let go. When you “grieve” for a parent or spouse or friend, that is what you are really missing — the merger, union, that you felt with them. And you can feel that loss of Eros everywhere in the world today. In the fury that’s sweeping the world, for belonging, for meaning, for purpose. In the rage that’s ripping across country after country, to be seen and counted as someone that matters. That is what I mean by the “loss of libido.”
Thanatos came to replace Eros, as capitalism and technology swept the globe — people, constantly threatened, adopted an aggressive, hostile, destructive stance, in the name of self-preservation. It doesn’t matter if we destroy the river, the tree, the insects — as long as I preserve myself. But then there is nothing left for us to transcend ourselves with, either. So in that way, capitalism and technology have also led us to give up the will to live fully, authentically, honestly, expansively — because doing so always recognizes our highest need is for self-transcendence, even though our first one is for self-preservation.
All of which leads me to a simple conclusion. The 21st century must be a time of Eros, if we are to heal this broken, troubled world. Not because I say so. But because we need to heal from the ruinous malaises of the ages of capitalism and technology. The anxiety and fear and isolation and meaninglessness they brought with them. We need to grieve, and grieve deeply, for all that we harmed, hurt, lost, abandoned, and ruined, in order to live again. And that is what is really being tested in this strange, difficult, century. Whether or not we want to live again. The alternative is, as it has always, been, death. The age of Thanatos is coming to an end. But will the age of Eros begin? That, my friends, is the question.